Dance with the virtual version of yourself

Preview the VR technology that is transforming the way we experience our own body, developed by the new Rambert Dance Company residents

The worlds of dance and digital intertwine in the work of Mária Júdová and Andrej Boleslavsky, the creative duo now taking part in the Rambert Dance Company’s four-month Sprint residency. Bringing Rambert dancers together with digital creatives, the residency aims to create a collaborative environment of experimentation and to open the company up to innovative and technological approaches to movement and dance.

With a shared interest in exploring biology, nature and technology across physical and digital environments, and a background in dance-tech, at Rambert the duo have been delving into the expressive potential of digital forms. “The scope of the residency is to interact with the dancers involved and find out what inspires them, what inspires us, and what we can create together,” Boleslavsky tells me when I visit them at the Rambert to try out their newly developed prototypes. Designing and programming their software in conversation with the dancers, they aim to enhance and extend the possibilities of the body as it moves between physical and digital space.

While the residency is not yet halfway through, the duo have already created a number of prototypes that have brought these ideas into fruition, with each work building upon a dialogue between the dancer and the technology. The prototypes play out within an interactive installation, currently made up of a studio and a screen. Within the studio the screen acts as a mirror, or a digital reflection of the user, as different programmed animations appear on the screen, responding directly to their movement.

In their first installation, the screen shows an animated white line, which attaches to different parts of the body. As the viewer moves, the line flows with the body, creating new shapes and moving to other parts, almost as if juggling a digital devilstick. Next further lines appear on the screen, corresponding to opposing limbs, which twist and expand to form complex shapes as the body moves and contorts. “It makes you think about how you move your limbs and the exact relationship between each part of the body,” Boleslavsky explains. “By visualising these measurements in real-time, the dancers are able to adjust and expand their movements accordingly.” 

The work draws on the principles of American choreographer William Forsyth’s Improvisational Technologies, a series of video lectures in which Forsyth used computer animated shapes to show techniques and theoretic principles of choreography.  Using Forsyth’s principles they demonstrate the explicit relationship existing already between mathematical or geometrical constructions and choreographic techniques in dance.

The second work explores these ideas in relation to space and the flow of movement. While the viewer or dancer moves about the room, the body is removed from the screen, showing instead a grid of vertical lines that form an abstract version the viewer’s extended movements. “A lot of interactive installations only mirror the viewer. With this, it is not a dialogue but rather like watching yourself in an augmented mirror,” says Júdová. “Instead we wanted to create a dialogue using fluid simulations, which take the impulse of the movement and carry it into something new.” As the body moves, vertical lines on the screen collapse to create a ripple of small rotating lines, again corresponding to set points on the body. The effect is hallucinatory and incredibly engaging; encouraged to move in bigger and unrestrained movements, it is easy to forget the image of your own body now removed from the screen.

The potential of technology as an extension of the body is something that guides much of the duo’s current research. Within their second installation, the rolling and flowing shapes caused by the user’s movement aims to suggest the impression of the body and its external atmosphere in space and amongst natural forces. “The programme has the potential to show a different perspective of the body that you might not be aware of,” says Júdová. “It can make you feel as if you are surrounded by water, wind or a tall field.”

The final piece that I see puts these ideas into a more immersive virtual reality experience. Through an oculus headset, the viewer can enter an alternative studio designed by the artist, parallel to the one in which the installation sits. As I put on the headset and look into the virtual room, a dancer previously filmed by the artists spins across the room next to me. He begins to multiply, until soon five of the same dancer twist and turn, following one another around the room. Eventually, a digital version of myself filmed by a camera in real-time enters the scene, standing among the dancers in the room. The experience is visceral, disorienting and very surreal. It takes you outside of your body, while simultaneously heightening your own internal awareness of its movements.

For Júdová and Boleslavsky, the most exciting part of using VR in this context is the way it enables dancers to engage with their own bodies very directly, so that they “totally explore the movement detached from the body, and see from a perspective that is not usually possible to see from in real time.” This is just one concept the duo is dealing with and, as they enthuse and emphasise, the possibilities for virtual reality and dance are seemingly limitless. “As an improvisational tool VR can inspire creative movements, as an educational tool it can record choreography and encourage public engagement, and for us it is a tool for endless artistic expression,” says Boleslavsky. “VR is so powerful. Okay, there are video games and porn, but we want to reclaim this technology and create something more meaningful.”

Maria Júdová and Andrej Boleslavsky are in residence from March to July 2016.  ‘Sprint’ is a new dance and technology initiative created by Rambert and Caper in collaboration with Alpha-ville. 

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