Lucy Corley: Virtually Dancing - CoLAB Dance & Virtual Worlds at The Edge, Bath

Posted by Creative Bath 2 years, 5 months ago

Lucy Corley shares her experience of the CoLAB Dance & Virtual Worlds event at The Edge, Bath, on Saturday 22 April.

"To start with, I’d just like you to move around and connect with the space."

Lisa May Thomas, dance artist and PhD researcher at the University of Bristol, began her ‘Collective Resonance: Bodies in Motion’ workshop in one of The Edge’s galleries. Some participants looked perplexed, but we joined in obediently, moving self-consciously around and trying to avoid eye contact.

Next, we were blindfolded and guided around the space by a partner and without sight, the movement of the air in the room seemed much stronger; the innocuous plastic objects I’d seen a moment before now felt amazingly cool and smooth to the touch. My partner’s hand on my shoulder replaced my sense of balance.

Then we donned VR (virtual reality) headsets and these partners we’d only known for ten minutes became fellow travellers experiencing something new for the first time together. Bright, neon-coloured molecules zoomed through the darkness around us, leaving trails like fireworks. We could phase through the edges of this pixel-sharp universe, like passing through the walls at the edge of a video game world.

In the virtual space, you locate other people by lights on their headsets, and like toddlers we reached out to touch each other’s faces, amazed to feel that someone else was physically there although we couldn’t see them. Discussing the experience afterwards, some people said it was a little unsettling, but the overwhelming feeling was joy in sharing this experience with strangers, our initial sense of awkwardness dissolved.

That joy spilled out into the rest of the afternoon at The Edge, despite real life now feeling a little more beige – as choreographers, computer scientists, filmmakers and technologists enthusiastically shared their creations. The venue buzzed with discussion as delegates asked questions and explored the technologies on display.

In Immersion Dance’s 3D-scanned virtual movement pieces, an image on a piece of card became a whole room you could fall into and move around; a pair of dancers duetted around a tin of baked beans. Yael Flexer and Nic Sandiland showcased their amazing Gravity Shift, where a camera attached to a tilting platform gives the impression that dancers are leaning, stumbling or falling across a flat surface, as if the forces acting on them were changing at random.

As well as their workshop, the Collective Resonance ensemble – a group of Dance and Music Tech students from Bath Spa University directed by Lisa May Thomas – performed their Sci-Tech-Dance piece Collective Resonance: Bodies in Motion. While most of the audience watched the dancers normally, one or two at a time took their turn using a VR headset. Instead of the performers’ physical forms, in VR you saw golden beams of light floating in the wake of their movements – as if you were watching the echoes or residue of where their bodies used to be. After the workshop’s collective energy, watching the performance in VR felt like looking at the stars from a desert island: beautiful, but incredibly isolating compared with the ‘liveness’ of watching with your eyes and feeling the air ripple with the ensemble’s movements.

These contrasting experiences of togetherness and isolation highlighted one of the questions that returned throughout the afternoon at The Edge – does technology bring people closer together, or does it isolate us? How does it intersect with dance, an art form arguably bound up with the human form and identity?

In the afternoon’s panel discussion, choreographer Adrienne Hart of Neon Dance suggested: “Technology inscribes a way of being onto us; it creates a duet between dancer and technology.” Dr Leon Watts, a Computer Science lecturer at the University of Bath, viewed technology as being shaped by humanity rather than shaping us – he called it “an expression of human values that causes us to reflect on our own lives.

Neon Dance’s production Empathy, performed as part of the day, grapples with this tension between humans and technology. Early in the work, performer Natalie Corne dances a graceful solo through a narrow corridor of laser beams. The shapes her body makes are curved and gentle, but tentative and restricted by avoiding contact with the lasers. As time passes, she begins to relax and sink into the lasers, and they become part of her, moving in sync to enhance her dance.

The sense of a struggle between dancer and lasers for authority or leadership persists throughout Empathy, and reflects humanity’s relationship with technology. There’s a striking beauty in the moment when Natalie is coloured bright green as the lasers pass over her, but at the same time her human form seems small and vulnerable when engulfed by the light which, as choreographer Adrienne pointed out, “if turned up too high could physically burn the dancers.

With the rise of artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things, there’s a lot of anxiety about the risk of technology getting out of control. Creative Review magazine’s special issue on automation, artificial intelligence and the creative industries in April this year discussed the need for regulations around the development and use of technologies, and the risk of allowing what many people see as technology’s ‘magical capabilities’ to overrule humans’ ‘right to explanation.

At CoLAB, a woman I spoke to during one of the breaks pointed out the importance of not getting carried away with technology. She said:

"What’s wrong with reality? I'm interested in all this [technology], but dance in real life has everything I want. Our brains are equipped with some pretty amazing things already: the ability to imagine and make memories.”

She has a point: in the age of the selfie, are we using phones and tablets to record our experiences and neglecting the power or our senses and minds? An article for Vice Magazine UK in 2015 thought so: Henry Wismayer wrote of “The death of awe in the age of awesome,” arguing that ubiquitous information and experiences available via a screen are dulling a generation’s ability to be wowed. “Real-life awe barely cuts it anymore,” he says. “We have Photoshop and CGI outdoing the actual.&rdquo

On the flip side, technology like CGI and VR can be awe-inspiring in their own way: my experience of virtual reality was breath-taking, and the same woman who advocated reality seemed enthralled when dancing in VR with performer Anna Troya, in an installation by CAMERA from the University of Bath.

Discussing his collaboration with choreographer Jean Abreu, Dr Watts viewed technology as an enabler, expanding their minds and helping them be more creative rather than less. He said:

“I’m richer because I have new ways of thinking about the world – I hope the same is true for Jean as well. Also as we find new ways of understanding the world, I think we’re creating new ideas – new meanings.”

For me, this essence of creative collaboration was at the heart of CoLAB : sharing technologies to build connections between people and spark new ideas. Collective Resonance summed this up in a duet between two dancers, one wearing a VR headset and the other a blindfold. They held hands and leaned away from each other, each balancing the other’s weight, then moved closer, one brushing the other’s cheek. Despite, or perhaps because of, their different ways of seeing, their interactions were all the more trusting and tender.

Having experienced both perspectives earlier that day, the performance had another layer of meaning: I knew what the performers in VR or blindfolded were sensing, so the feelings of togetherness and isolation in the piece were much stronger. The VR technologies at The Edge opened up new avenues for creativity and performance, and in doing so, gave us a new perspective on ourselves as humans.

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