Merging dance and new media

Motion sensors, lighting touch pads and computer-generated commands that respond to a dancer’s movements could be the way of the future for prospective choreographers. While it may seem a computer interface and the movements made by a dancer’s body would not have much in common, York University Professors Don Sinclair and Holly Small are bringing together students with backgrounds in new media and dance in an interactive dance studio. 

“Basically, what we’ve done is create a computer-mediated performance space,” says Sinclair, a professor in the Faculty of Fine Arts’ Cultural Studies Program, with a background in both computer science and music.

Students use software designed to process large amounts of data in real-time. A Web cam captures their motions, with unique values attached to dozens of different areas in the room. Depending on where and how a dancer moves, he or she can perform a variety of audio/video manipulations. In exploring the digital space, the dancer maintains varying degrees of control, allowing for an improvisation to occur – complete with light and sound.

Small’s dance students will learn to use the software that acts as the system’s hub.

“My hope is that the dancers will become conversant with the technology,” Small says. “Often the attitude from the technical end of things is very much ‘you’re the dancer, you stay over here.’ You have a far more profound insight into the creative process if you understand what’s going on behind the scenes. When you understand the technology, suddenly you’re not just a dancer – you’re a co-creator,” she says.

By the same token, Sinclair’s tech-savvy students will also learn valuable skills from immersing themselves in dance.

“The students who enrolled obviously have some interest in dance,” says Sinclair. “But we’re going to get them out on the floor, doing movement exercises and working with the dancers so that they really comprehend how best the technology can work with what they’re doing. Who knows – by the end of the semester they might even be creating improvisations of their own.”

In the performance world, Small says, the creative process is often hampered by the divide between dancers, musicians and technicians. “It’s important for our students to bridge that gap. Otherwise, you end up with dancers with ‘prima donna’ syndrome. That’s very rare around here.”

Sinclair also wants his students to explore technology as a medium for artistic expression. “I’m using this computer as a creative tool in the same way dancers use their bodies as creative tools,” says Sinclair. “It’s just that a dancer’s technique doesn’t jump out at you like this does. People see a computer and they think ‘oh, that’s technical.’ But the division is much fuzzier than that.”

Sinclair and Small will team-teach the course, which is offered for the first time this semester through the Faculty of Fine Arts.