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Dance Visual Arts

Creating New Realities in Dance

How visual artists and choreographers work together


Published: 25 Aug 2022

Time taken : >15mins

Dance is an inherently collaborative artform. It requires establishing a number of relationships in its creation and performance. If the dance is not a solo created by oneself, then it requires the involvement of other dancers. For it to be a performance, it involves the presence of an audience to witness it.

The input of specific performers is often so integral to the process of dance creation that the creator of Transverse Orientation, a work that chronicles the human compulsion to find meaning in life’s journey, emphasises that the specific personalities of the original cast are important to the dramaturgy of the work and that he has not changed the cast. Greek director, choreographer and visual artist, Dimitris Papaioannou, who is a master at presenting evocative images, may not know what he wants to do with the performers when he begins a new work but tries to discover what is inside them. He wants to offer to the audience what he saw in the performers when he first selected them for the project. The work premiered a year ago in France and was staged at Esplanade Theatre on 26 and 27 Aug 2022.

<em>Transverse Orientation</em> by Dimitris Papaioannou. A production of Onassis Stegi. Photo credit: Julian Mommert

Singapore-based choreographer Kuik Swee Boon, who is currently developing a new work, Infinitely Closer, to be presented at Esplanade’s Singtel Waterfront Theatre in October, also feels that it is necessary to draw on the experience of the people he has chosen to work with. The dance engages with holographic images and a movable set to explore ideas of freedom and the navigation of multiple identities within oneself, so he spent time trying to understand how the cultures and experiences of the dancers and designers related to the themes he is trying to explore in the work.

At the beginning of the choreographic process, Kuik spent a long time getting to know his dancers and his collaborators who come from different countries. He had many conversations over Zoom with his collaborators, Macau-based projection artist duo SEESAW, comprising Jay Lei and Jay Lee who designed the projection for Infinitely Closer. One of the points that SEESAW highlighted was how the relationship with the audience is integral to the performance. At points within the performance, the audience will be invited to roam through the stage space, past the projection, the sets and the dancersbecoming both an additional visual element in the work and having the agency of performers.

The audiences of Tree of Codes, to be staged at Esplanade’s da:ns festival in October, will also be drawn into the dance through the magic of the visual design and music. It is what British choreographer and director Wayne McGregor deems “a piece of joy, a magical hallucinatory trip, like being in the metaverse immediately” but the difference is that the audience is experiencing it together.  There are moments when the lights move over the audience and as their reflections are captured on stage, they too are transformed into performers. Through the reflective surfaces on stage, they are integrated into the dance and become more self-aware, making the performance a “collective breath and journey with one another”.

Working across disciplines to express the intangible

The close collaboration between choreographers and visual artists is what weaves and creates a transformative experience. Performance is often about creating a new reality for the audience.

One of the strongest collaborations between visual arts and dance was between American modern dance choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991) and Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988), who worked together to create choreography and set design for over 20 dances.  

Their first collaboration was in 1935 when Noguchi created a sparsely striking set for Graham’s solo Frontier, that explored the homesteading lifestyle and pioneering spirit of the American frontier. Noguchi found “joy in seeing sculpture come to life on the stage in its own world of timeless time”. Performance brings to life the sculptural installations and he felt that it is “possible to realise in a hypothetical way those projections of the imagination into environmental space which are denied us in actuality”. One of the co-creators of Tree of Codes, Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, known for his large-scale installation art, echoes this same idea of the power of art to realise and express the intangible. He poetically notes how art, music and dance are capable of sending the audience “unthought thoughts from the future” that we are not surprised at receiving, because inside us we realise “I was about to think exactly that”.

<em>Tree of Codes </em> by Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx. Photo credit: Joel Chester Fildes

When created and experienced collaboratively, these artforms and disciplines build upon and extend each other to the point that the boundaries are blurred. One of Noguchi and Graham’s most well-known collaborations was Appalachian Spring (1944), danced to a score by American composer Aaron Copland. The piece is a joyous performance about a young frontier couple on their wedding day. Noguchi described the rocking chair in the dance as “a seat which is also a sculpture or a sculpture which may be sat on”. For 1947’s Cave of the Heart, Noguchi created a gown of spikes that Graham named “a chariot of flames” for the protagonist Medea’s journey to meet the sun and Noguchi considered it a “dress of transformation”. The moment when Graham dons the dress is a prime example of how, in Noguchi’s words, she makes the sculptures “extensions of her own anatomy”. 

The multiple materials, modes and media engaged with in interdisciplinary collaborations add to the layers of meanings on stage. The Ballet Russes (1909-1929), under impresario Sergei Diaghilev, had a focus on merging dance with contemporary visual art. He was prolific in engaging artists to design costumes, scenery or sets for their ballets. The list of artists includes Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Andre Derain, Joan Miro and Léon Bakst. In 1917, Pablo Picasso first worked with the Ballet Russes to create a cubist world for the one-act Parade choreographed by Russian choreographer Leonide Massine (1896-1979) with music composed by Erik Satie and a libretto about a group of circus performers conceived by French poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963). He went on to create sets for five more ballets, including Le Tricorn, or The Three Cornered Hat (1919) that was also choreographed by Massine, with music composed by Manuel de Falla. The story was inspired by the Spanish novel El Sombrero de Tres Picos (1874) by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón.

Changing reality for the audience

In the book Picasso, Theatre (1968) historian Douglas Cooper states that Picasso saw a parallel between painting and the theatre because he regarded both as “being different though comparable ways of creating an illusory world with images which nonetheless reflect, and so help us, the spectators, to recognise more about, the world in which we live”. Decades later these words can be applied to Eliasson’s stage design for Tree of Codes co-created with McGregor and musician Jamie xx. This work is based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Tree of Codes that is in itself a sculptural object created from Bruno Schulz’s compilation of short stories, Street of Crocodiles by using a die-cut method on the pages, making it read the way a redacted page might appear with missing lines and phrases. In a similar manner, Eliasson transforms the stage into an ever-changing and dynamic space of layered surfaces that reveal, hide, reflect and refract. Just as the title of Safran’s Tree of Codes is revealed from within Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles when certain letters are removed from the latter, in the dance you may see one thing on the surface but realise that there is another story within.

McGregor is interested in the ambiguous relationship between what is real and what is not. The collaboration with Eliasson creates a reality that “compositionally confuses the eye and creates optical illusions that distort your sense of body”.

Sometimes you see a dancer in front of a mirror but you realise the story and action are actually inside the mirror. This gets the audience questioning whether they are seeing the dancer or the dancer’s reflection. In this way the audience’s perception of the space and their role in it is altered and the experience of dance as a linear, time-based form is broken by the multiple reflections of themselves and the dancers.

<em>Tree of Codes </em> by Wayne McGregor, Olafur Eliasson and Jamie xx. Photo credit: Ravi Deepres

Kuik’s Infinitely Closer intends to surface similar questions by using holographic bodies to mix the virtual and live. In this way the visual design is more than symbolism and representation. It makes visible what we cannot see—things that are ephemeral, spiritual or microscopic—and challenges perceptions of reality.

<em>Infinitely Closer</em> by Kuik Swee Boon & The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company. Holographic projection by Macau-based projection artist duo SEESAW.

Papaioannou capitalises on the illusory power of theatre and dance to deeply soak in the mysteries of existence, the violence and strange issue of humanity’s monstrosity, but he does not impose opinions with his art, preferring to offer suggestions. He wants his audience to go on a personal journey that is guided but not imposed by the performance. He tries to be present and clear in the work but to get out of the way so that the audience may enjoy the work as one would a garden or a meal. He asks “what is there to understand in a garden or to understand in a meal? There is an order to the food appearing but what is there to understand?”. Ultimately, he would like there to be hundreds of meanings floating around but for everyone to choose what suits their culture, background and self. As with food, he hopes his works are entertaining but nutritious in a personal way.

Conversations, curiosity and the many moving parts

In dance making, people usually want to see dance movements first, resulting in a hierarchy between music, dance and scenography. For the experience to be immersive and transformative and for the audience perception to be subverted, it involves upending this hierarchy and putting the various elements in consistent dialogue. Eliasson thinks of art, not as an object, but as the relationships between the elements; all the dancers, the dancers and the audience, the audience and the stage, the stage and the music. He considers dialogue a way of staying interconnected to support the relationships that produce new realities.  

For McGregor, the conversation is delineated by a boundary object. In this case, the book that has a very present materiality and requires a physical way of reading. From there, McGregor, Eliasson and Jamie xx tried to see how it inspired them and how they might work together, because collaboration is also a process of not knowing. To McGregor, it is not telling others what to do, it is about giving room to express their own individuality. It is not transactional. It is a slippery process. It is something you have to be passionate about and the collaborators need to be willing to spend time and deep dive together. In the development of Tree of Codes, there was a constant give-and-take with different elements leading at various times. Jamie xx would send fragments of music, McGregor would do some work in the studio and Eliasson some sketches that they would share with each other. From there, they would look for overlaps, tensions and counterpoints that worked together.

The artists drew on all their experiences to explore their many creative questions. Eliasson used to be a breakdancer, so one of the first experiments they did was for McGregor and then Eliasson to try to do a disappearing dancebut the trick was not to leave the room. They wanted to question the nature of entrances and exits on stage and to find out if there was another way to exit.

When working together on the body they questioned how much information is needed to know it is a body and human. Once that is known, how can it be subverted? What are ways they could alter the audience's perception of biological motion in real-time, analogous to the way Jamie xx was building acoustic images that altered the chemical state of the body. The driving beats that can be felt through the soles of the feet, the use of voice, or disembodied poetry creates an introspective state that is productive of empathic emotions. McGregor and Eliasson wanted to generate empathy by affecting the emotional response of the body through what is experienced visually and kinaesthetically.

The intention was for Tree of Codes to be an event piece that thinks of the audience first. Everything, no matter what discipline it originated from, would have an equal presence at different times. Even in the creative process, the power relationship was fluid in that each would take the lead at different times.

For instance, at one point Jamie xx might give an experiment for them to respond to musically. They asked themselves questions such as what is choreography in relation to scenography but detached from the music? How is music and lights without the presence of the dancers also choreography? Even when the body is present, the focus may not be on the movement of the living body but on activating the environment by doing something with scenography. The interplay between the artforms is in trying to make it coherent and take the audience on a sensory journey.  

Kuik’s conversations with his collaborators began around their living environments. For instance, how Macau and Hong Kong is different from Singapore. He wanted to know how they think and how this is influenced by their environment. The collaboration with SEESAW afforded some interesting conundrums and pleasant surprises for Kuik. He wanted to try to find the balance within this imbalance and reveal awkward imperfections. To achieve that and to allow the audience to move more freely, he deliberately chose to challenge himself with a three-sided projection, rather than the usual one- or four-sided projection, to create an image that could be perceived 360 degrees around it. SEESAW was comfortable reinterpreting the concepts in their own ways, presenting visuals for the projections in a style completely different from Kuik’s and completely unexpected because they could see things that he could not or did not.

Papaioannou is himself a painter, so within him the director/choreographer’s instincts are combined with the painter’s/artist’s eye. Transverse Orientation began from a strong sense of curiosity. Papaioannou wondered about how to move a life-size puppet of an animal and to move it in a way as if it was moving the performer. The idea of taming of a wild animal gave an opportunity to explore this relationship of being the animator and also the receiver of the force you are animating. It was a combination of visual and movement inspiration and he was intrigued to test it. The testing started with the mock up and the skeleton could be moved amazingly well. So he had the idea of dressing the skeleton with black pillows to make it soft, but sculptor Nectarios Dionysatos exceeded expectations by coming up with a life-like sculpture of the bull that was soft.

<em>Transverse Orientation</em> by Dimitris Papaioannou. A production of Onassis Stegi. Photo credit: Julian Mommert

As the team worked together and realised there was a way to move the bull while riding it, the sound designer also added sounds so that the movement of the bull itself creates sound. Then the performers came into the process and they studied how it runs. This incremental process created a much richer and more present experience than Papaioannou expected.

With these interdisciplinary collaborations we start to see that the lines between the artforms are blurred and these distinctions do not matter. What matters is the experience for the audience. Can the advancements in technology and the various strategies that the artists use so completely breakdown the boundaries between the artforms to the point that a sense of synaesthesia is achieved? Synaesthesia is the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another part of the body. This feels as if you cannot discern between your senses because they are all mixed up at the same time. The goal is for these works to be truly synaesthetic eventswith the audience as the final arbiter of their effectiveness.

Infinitely Closer and Tree of Codes are part of Esplanade’s da:ns festival which runs from 13–23 Oct 2022.

Contributed by:

Melissa Quek

Melissa Quek is a choreographer, performer and educator who has been working professionally in dance since she was 18. She is Head of the School of Dance & Theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts.

Where dance takes us

da:ns festival 2022

As we dance into the future, open your mind, lift your spirit and get your body moving in this time of flux, reflection and change.

13–23 Oct
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