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CAKE Mix 17: The Science of Performance

How does the artistic production process combine science, technology, and storytelling to produce an emotional response in an audience? Glad you asked. CAKE 17: The Science of Performance  was delivered as part of Southpaw Dance Company’s The Physics of Dance programme, hosted by Dance City. Our four speakers were each given ten minutes to articulate how technology enhances, complements and complicates their art forms – dance, theatre, public installations, and educational expeditions. Their presentations fuelled plenty of thought and discussion about the interactivity and inter-reliance of arts, science and technology.

This is what happened on #FuseCAKE, the live-tweeted musings of the Creative Fuse community.

Our first speaker was Robby Graham, from Southpaw Dance Company. Southpaw create contemporary dance productions which involve mass participation, community casts, moving image, projection and other technologies to produce big visual spectacles. Southpaw Dance Company are currently working with Creative Fuse as part of an Innovation Pilot project exploring the potential of immersive technologies. It was fitting then, that Robby’s discussion centred around the variety of tools that come together to make a Southpaw performance.

Robby’s passion for dance began with Hip Hop, without any classical training. He explained that Southpaw initially grew out of a sense of rebellion – casting aside hierarchical structures of theatre and dance, and creating something different and democratic. Eventually, Robby explains, he opened up to consider different forms of dance – including swing dance, European folk styles, and contemporary movement. Taking elements from each as inspiration, Southpaw consider these different modes of expression as tools through which to tell a story.

Listening to Robby, it’s clear that this approach is taken with all elements of a performance, from the dance form to props and any technologies deployed. It’s not about the spectacle – as spectacular as it may be – but about the narrative, the story and the emotions that the visuals communicate to an audience.

Quoting Martha Graham, Robby pondered the expression “Dance is the hidden language of the soul, of the body” and added his own footnote: “Dance can express the space between words.” Through this blend of stories, technologies, spectacle and talent, a performance can emerge with almost magical qualities.

It would be easy to attribute a quality performance as pure art, raw talent, or something simultaneously effortless yet unattainable for ordinary people – but, as Robby explained, nothing ‘just happens’. It is only through a process of persistence, experimentation and refinement that a performance can be made; a kind of science of performance for Southpaw.

Our next speakers were Catrina McHugh & Roma Yagnik from Open Clasp Theatre Company, a women’s theatre company, based in Newcastle. Their productions tour regionally, nationally and internationally, and they work collaboratively with marginalised women and girls to create theatre for personal, social and political change. Their presentation outlined how they make use of design within a performance to connect emotionally with their audiences.

Open Clasp use a unique methodology; through drama they create a safe space for discussion. The women they work with, many of whom have experienced abuse, are encouraged to create a character which draws on their personal experiences. Through these characters, they create and discuss hopes, strengths and the changes they would wish to see.

One of their latest plays, Rattle Snake, emerged from a collaboration with Durham University and Durham Police, where Open Clasp were challenged to produce innovative training for officers responding to domestic violence situations. The play is based on the lived experiences of survivors, and will tour again in May/June 2018, due to demand.

Roma, the Sound Designer for Rattle Snake, spoke about how she was responsible for enhancing the emotional connections in the performance through sound. This included jarring intro music as the audience entered, essentially a playlist of what Roma described as ‘violent love songs’ – music which on the surface can be seen as love songs, but which on closer inspection have sinister implications (one example was The Police, Every Breath You Take). Roma edited these tracks to trip up the casual listener, taking the music beyond background noise to highlight key phrases and ask the audience to consider the lyrics carefully before the play officially began.

Other sounds were designed for Rattle Snake to represent threatening characters not visible on the stage.

The above sound clip (Boxing Scene) was played during the presentation, without any accompaniment on stage. Even in isolation, it produced an incredible emotional response.

Roma’s powerful examples highlighted the skills and conscious effort needed to engineer emotion within a theatrical production. As touched in in the previous presentation, sound does not ‘just happen,’ it’s an element that contributes to the overall narrative of a performance – and can be broken down and analysed to tease out why certain techniques or combinations produced a particular response from an audience.

The third presentation offered further insight into this. Dan Adams is a technical designer for DAT Events who has worked on installations including those featured in Durham’s Lumiere Festival.  Dan’s challenge is often to take an artistic concept and transform it into something tangible and interactive through innovative technologies; problem solving along the way.

Dan’s talk was an engaging behind the scenes view of technical installation, telling the stories behind the artworks that many of our audience enjoyed at Lumiere.

With each piece, Dan was tasked with making the interactive elements work. Often, the technology wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed, especially when you consider the network implications of the large scale audiences that Lumiere attracts. An app that allows individuals to manipulate the artworks (controlling the lights and colours that are projected) has many logistical issues to iron out with potentially thousands of users interacting at once.

Sometimes, Dan explained, the opposite was the case and the simplest solutions turned out to be the most effective, as with the synchronisation of lights and bells in Pablo Valbuena’s Methods piece (projected on Durham Cathedral).

As with the other speakers, Dan emphasised that technologies are the tools through which to create a narrative, and not a means to an end in themselves.

The final speaker for this CAKE event was Austen Atkinson. His company, Lexicon Learning, create narratives that drive the use of VR in education.

Lexicon work in collaboration with Google Expeditions: educational VR expeditions which make use of smartphones and cardboard VR headsets. This technology opens up the possibilities for students to explore impossible locations and experience spaces through their own lens. However, without narrative structure, this technological capability would be nothing more than novelty.

Austen explained that Lexicon create narrative-based learning journeys, using accessible technology to create changes in the future of learning. Some of their future projects include building dragons and going to space, continuing to think creatively and produce great stories.

Q&A Session

The questions during this part of CAKE reflected the wider Physics of Dance programme at Dance City, and raised some really exciting points about the nature of the STEM/STEAM agenda.

Often, as explored by our audience, arts are used as a tool to engage people in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) but very little emphasis is placed on cross-fertilisation in the other direction – getting scientists into the arts. Of course, arts and culture can be used to amazing effect in illustrating scientific ideas, breathing life into concepts that could at first appear dry or abstract, but it works the other way too.

Programmes such as The Physics of Dance start conversations and highlight the value of art in its own right – technological and engineering innovation are an exciting means to producing a more powerful narrative. In the end (at the risk of getting a bit Dead Poets Society…), it’s about getting the right skills in a room to tell a better story.

About Our Venue

Dance City is a Newcastle-based dance organisation, providing amazing performance and practice spaces, an exciting performance programme, around 85 classes for all levels, and offer qualifications from BTEC to Masters Level. They have recently opened a sister site in Sunderland.

Next CAKE Event

CAKE 18: Innovative Women. Thursday, 8th March, Middlesbrough.