Lecture by Scott deLahunta, edited in collaboration with Rebecca Hilton
This an edited transcript of a lecture given in the context of the DOCH Open Lecture Series at Stockholm University of the Arts on April 11th 2018.
SD: My name is Scott deLahunta. I’m interested in documentation of dance and, in particular, trying to document the process of making dances, as distinct from documenting the final work. So most of what I will try to share today has a lot to do with documenting the process and how to think about that.
I’m going to talk about time and change over time, because I’ve become quite interested in reconceptualising time. To think it differently, to try to probe it differently and to do that in various ways, which should, I hope, become clearer as I go along.
In the essay “Publishing Choreographic Ideas” (deLahunta 2013) those of you who’ve read it will have some sense of what I mean by that title, I’m referring to a number of books or DVD publications that have come out in the dance field in the last 15 years. And these tend to be books or media objects, which give you some insight into how the choreographer is working. It’s less about archiving their final works, and more about the documenting process, and those who have been developing these kinds of publications are artists like Meg Stuart, William Forsythe, Deborah Hay, Emio Greco and Pieter Scholten from Amsterdam. (See 2013 list published here) And there are edited collections like the Scores publication1 from Tanzquartier in Vienna, which also draw together ideas that are particularly pertinent when people are making work. So again, there’s this idea that process is what people are trying to share.
1 The original TQW site is no longer available, so find the 6 versions here (accessed 31.12.2018):
And it’s complicated to share, particularly with dance when a lot of the exchange of information in the studio involves relationships that emerge from things that aren’t said, unspoken. Things that either emerge through touch, what we might call tacit – that’s another word for implicit – or through collaborative processes. Dance is often very collaborative. So it’s a bit of a… not a contradiction exactly and not a paradox either – those wouldn’t be the right ways to think about it – but it is a challenge to publish and try to share that material in the absence of the body and the absence of a studio.
So what I was trying to do in the essay is to suggest that this collection of books and DVDs and websites that were emerging could be an indication of a new kind of literature, a new kind of discourse coming out of dance practice. And the implication being that it was a discourse that had an intellectual dimension to it, that it had conceptual and abstract understandings.
And giving more dimension to the notion of the ‘body’, which sometimes is positioned as being purely intuitive or emotional, lots of feeling etc. So a number of us were interested in drawing attention to these publications because they stood or seemed to stand for something else.
And here’s where I’m shifting these days. I’m shifting away from the idea that there is a literature emerging. I think it’s the wrong way of thinking about it. And the other thing that a lot of us drew attention to was the idea that things that were hidden somehow in the body were being made visible. And I also think that’s not quite the right way to think about it. It suggests a higher status for visuality. That doesn’t seem like quite the right fit.
And the other problem was that these were highly curated projects with specific well-known artists and most of them were very well funded. So in that sense, as contributions to a shift in the understanding of dance, its not practically possible to make the kind of impact implied by my essay. If you’re looking at making it possible for more people to express their ideas in dance using other platforms or media via forms of documentation, we weren’t pursuing a sustainable strategy for that.
So those are some of the reasons I’m shifting away from some of the ideas in that essay. And I’m also shifting away from the idea that there’s an extrinsic interest in dance. This is not to say I am not interested in continuing to encourage other fields to collaborate with dance, but I think there is still more work to be done somehow from ‘inside’ the form. (See Blades and Meehan 2018) And that’s part of what begins to drive this desire to connect and express more intrinsic properties and one of them, I think, has to do with time.
Incidentally, I think time has to do with all creative processes. So if you’re making film, if you’re making sculpture, if you’re writing, the temporal, the time dimension is something crucial for any artistic process. Different from engineering processes where there’s more or less a clear goal, and there’s a lot of drive towards this goal. An artistic process is, I think, slightly different.
So I’m interested in communicating what happens in the studio. I have a dance background and was making dances at some point myself, but in the 1990s I transitioned into more of a research role with an interest in understanding what’s happening in the studio, in how dances are being made. And I guess I felt many years ago that that wasn’t well understood by those standing outside of this process. Critics were talking about performances, scholars were writing about history, but nobody was really discoursing about what was happening in the studio.
And I continue to be obsessed by that task in a way, and am particularly interested in helping people understand what’s happening in the absence of the body. Because, in a sense, if the body is in place the communication channels are very thick, very big and lots of things happen. But what happens if you pick up a piece of paper or a book that a choreographer has shared some ideas in? How do you understand that material?
I’ll begin by talking about Motion Bank (online scores), in its first phase from 2010–2013, this was a very large, well-funded project, again one of these, in some ways, unsustainable projects. And yet it was also a fantastic opportunity to do things.
For the first phase, Deborah Hay, Jonathan Burrows/Matteo Fargion and Bebe Miller/Thomas Hauert were invited to participate, with a view that we would publish insights into their creative processes. Somehow trying to do that using computer-aided design. So finding ways to visualise relationships was one of our tasks.
I’ll take you to Deborah’s website, this is what we published from the material we collected over a period of two years of working with her. There’s a lot of material not published there, but this is the stuff that we had time to publish. The main entry point is in the “introduction to concepts”, as it’s important to understand Deborah’s conceptual starting points and frames in order for the rest of the sections to make the most sense.
In some ways I think, for all of us who are interested in documenting process and sharing that, whether it’s in dance or film or sculpture, identifying the conceptual frameworks or the ideation of the imagination and the ideas that are feeding that imagination is key. You may not think of them as concepts but it can be quite useful to allow them to be organised as conceptual frameworks.
So with Deborah we could spend some time on this, because during her many years of working, she has produced quite a body of language and writing. Has anybody here worked with her?
RH: Many of them have worked with her.
SD: Okay. Great, then if you’ve met her then you have a feeling for the way she’s drawn to language. So we started the process by interviewing her, because frankly interviewing is one of the best ways to draw out, to elicit information about work. Organising your interview, making decisions, almost like an ethnographer, about what in particular you’d like to bring out.
Deborah has published a lot on her own work (Hay 1994, Hay 2000, Hay 2015, www.deborahhay.com, accessed 31.12.2018) that you can access in addition to the content on the Motion Bank website. So I’m going to talk now about this idea of annotation, and what it can contribute. We’re thinking about the future now, the first phase of Motion Bank is finished, and we are trying to imagine, myself and my collaborator Florian Jenett, what did we learn, what can we further develop, what can we take forward in this next phase?2
2 For some insight into current developments see: medium.com/motion-bank
During phase one, we were, especially Florian, quite convinced about the possibilities of annotating video or any time-based media. That through thinking about annotation there appeared a very interesting, intriguing way of continuing to develop our software platforms, but with a strong research goal focused less on tool-making and more on methods and approaches. What does it mean to study video or time-based media to make certain decisions about the content that you see? How do you understand it, are there differences, what do you do to describe that, what do you do to name things? And how does that all begin to cohere into something meaningful that might reflect on the dance experience?
And the background to that, in part, was Piecemaker, the video annotation software we used for Deborah’s project, which was originally developed by David Kern who danced with Bill Forsythe. David wanted to contribute to The Forsythe Company’s organisation of its rehearsal video recordings by creating a system for finding things more easily again. By the time he started working on this in 2005/06, streaming online video was possible.3 He thought he could build something where they could annotate video of rehearsals in the studio and make that available to the company as a creative tool, as a memory aid. So this was the primary goal of the original version of Piecemaker. They recorded the daily rehearsals of eight productions between 2008–2013, with Freya Vass-Rhee, the dramaturge doing most of the annotations.
3 YouTube launched in 2005.
We inherited this material a couple of years ago and raised some funds to research it, particularly to study its use and the software development aspect with a view to increasing our understanding of how to use dance annotation in the creative context. We knew that nobody else was using a video annotation approach like this so this has been very valuable research for us. The tricky thing is that the actual material cannot be opened up, it was never intended to be for the public. So it’s private Forsythe Company material and there is a clear trust basis that dictates the decision not to make it public. But as in general, our aim is to do research on dance documentation and annotation, especially when we can refer to particular contexts and conditions, some of what we learned will be reflected on and published.
So this was the original version of Piecemaker. Piecemaker 2 was an augmented version of this, which Florian and the team in Frankfurt developed for the first phase of Motion Bank, and we used it with Deborah Hay and Jonathan Burrows/ Matteo Fargion. And since that time, starting a couple of years ago, Piecemaker 3 went into development. The vision with Piecemaker 3 was to develop an open source, free, usable online platform that anybody can access and use. Even establishing your own privacy framework with the groups that you want to collaborate with, the people you decide to work with. I’ll talk about a little bit more about this later.
In terms of the documenting process, The Forsythe Company was recording everything and annotating it with Piecemaker, which made it possible to use different organisational and information structures to help the company find stuff again, searching on dates, titles, performers names, keywords, descriptive text, things like that. So it was really an aide-memoire intrinsic to the company, there was no desire to share those processes outside of the studio, no plans to publish how things got made, at least not through the annotated video contents. I don’t think they were opposed to sharing, but it just wasn’t taken into consideration as part of the whole project.
I have been involved in other projects documenting and studying creative process in dance, which offered different opportunities to develop methods for this. I want to talk briefly about one approach in particular, as a contrast to the daily recordings made of everything, like the Forsythe Company was doing. This other approach looks at taking slices of the creation process, by conducting semi-structured interviews during the process at certain points over a long period. The particular interview instrument has been developed with a psychologist colleague of mine Phil Barnard to try and ascertain, to determine, how things are changing over time. (For additional background see deLahunta and Barnard 2018) The operative word here being ‘change over time’. Rather than focussing on ideas like transformation or development, this approach tries to record the way things are continuously changing.
As an artist you may have no agency over the changes that take place in the context of the creative process. One is often working someplace between creative decisions you feel you are making, and decisions that are somehow being made for you, either through serendipity or unexpected developments. So there is a kind of constant dialogue with this change dimension, the different dimensions of change taking place, as you’re making something. So there’s a whole bunch of stuff packed into this interview instrument that’s intended to pull out and make explicit some of the things that are changing over the long term. Questions are structured around various properties such as the core ideas, sources, about generation strategies, and things like local and global constraints, such as what happens when a company member is ill or funding and presentation possibilities shift.
The reason the interviews are spaced some weeks apart is because most of this stuff, if you were to stop and ask all these questions on a daily basis, nobody would know what had really changed, they’re too immersed in the process. But if you check in with these questions periodically over a long period of time you can see quite a lot of development. So it’s just a different way of thinking about where you can start your way into the documenting process. Also, way before someone gets into the studio, most people are stacking up ideas and holding onto them. This means you could start to document a process, way before a rehearsal period even begins.
But going back to recording and annotating on a daily basis, collecting as much as possible, looking for the traces of creative ideas just coming into fruition. For this I will talk about some work with choreographer Lucy Guerin in Melbourne, who was beginning a 10-day research period. I was invited to come in on the basis of trying to annotate in real time what was happening. And I had no real sense of how that was going to go. I think that Lucy was quite interested in the possibility that at the end of a making process, she might be able to get a glimpse of what had happened at the very beginning of it by looking at the annotated documentation. It might not be productive, but at least it would be conceivable to return to that morning, when you started working on something. And that was a little of what drove her interest in the project. Then there was also my presence in the space, which had an influencing effect.
After the first day I wrote a little text that I thought I would read to you, because I was quite confused and depressed. I had the feeling I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I thought, after all these years of experience documenting and studying the creative process in dance, and I’m just clueless.
So I wrote this:
Decision Making, My Perspective:
So I’m not doing movement analysis, I’m not doing anthropology, I’m not doing notation, I’m not doing dramaturgy, I’m not doing psychology, I’m not doing choreography and I’m not dancing. So what do I look at and what do I look for?
I’m looking for a kind of making idea4, the type of approach, the feeling for the proportion of choices, of the labour, of the rhythm in the process, of relationships between moving and talking, writing and remembering.
I’m interested in how things get started in the morning and how they end in the afternoon and how this research phase relates to the eventual creation of a new one. How Tuesday and Friday are different from Monday and Wednesday and what’s it like when seven people are in this space compared to two or three.
And there are different kinds of communication, there are task and choreographic instructions, there are modulations, by which I mean ‘try this differently’. There’s teaching and learning of movement phrases, there’s improvisation, there’s setting up rules, working with scores, discussions, problem solving and trying things out. The choreographer and six dancers seem to understand their roles very clearly, so how much unspoken communication is there, as conversation moves from questions, clarifications, comments and suggestions.
Things are being made, movements and relationships to people, and objects to the space. The sound, and music somehow, is critical to the atmosphere but there are also often counts and beats or rhythm. The choreographer works quickly, Lucy, using known approaches, like trying different versions of material, permutations, translating it through language back to movement. Trying out different things like the big impro with all the elements, looking for organised chaos.
The choreographer has spoken of looking for a world with ‘rules and laws’. This was clearly a concept, an idea she entered into the process with. This world with rules and laws, would this be a kind of bulwark for chaos? Inchoate, just beginning to form? With the choreographer also holding back, resisting making her usual choices. And yet she was guided by things that she was seeing and feeling, the positive responses, preferences. So holding back, but also just going with what appealed, likes, dislikes.
4 Reminds me of Peter Hulton (www.arts-archives.org), a well-known documenter of performance practices who once said he was looking for someone ‘operating in imagery’. See: “A Thing Being Done”. An interview with Peter Hulton, by David Williams and Ric Allsopp, Exeter, England, May 2001. DIY? Ecologies of Practice. Writings on Dance 21, 14.
So under these conditions, you can’t get any purchase on what’s happening in the long term. In other words, the process of asking the kinds of interview questions I mentioned earlier makes no sense in that context. Stuff’s happening way too fast. And if people don’t know, you can’t ask them what they think. Also I found, at such an early stage in a process, you can’t sit them next to the video at the end of the day and ask them to say something about what they’ve done. Well, you can do this, but how useful is it?
The inspiring and open question that came up for me by the end of this period of recording related to the challenge of how best to share what was happening in the studio with people outside the studio? Could I publish something from the process? In studying what I had recorded I found a trace of a concept or an idea referred to as ‘interest’. At first it shows up as an instruction from Lucy to the dancers; ‘to pay attention to what interests you, then practice it and hold onto it in some way for future recall’. Over time it took on the quality of a name, and to do or to show your ‘interest’ became a way of recalling and sharing, exchanging material. So I realised I could trace that through different instantiations in the recordings, iterations throughout the days. I thought, okay that’s sufficient, that’s a little trace of something, I can make it explicit, can draw attention to it. And it was also changing on the basis of people’s relationships and evolving all the time, to the point that on the last day I recorded a conversation they had in the middle of this space about how ‘interest’ was actually the wrong word.
Partly my interest has been in revealing the creative process of dance to people who would have no insight into this kind of process, the many dimensions to it, the complexity and the oddness of it. This complexity attracts me to the idea that I could possibly help somebody to understand the value of it.
I’m wrapping up now.
As I mentioned, we have been developing Piecemaker 3 and making it available to our research partners. We had hoped for a more general release, but realised it was too much for the small team in Mainz to take on. But in any case, it has now been re-programmed under a very permissible open source license and is on GitLab, so if you have a colleague who is computer savvy and can programme, the source code is there and you can make a copy, or ‘fork it’ in software development terms, and adapt it to your own needs.
As I mentioned earlier, our interest in developing software has a strong research goal focussed more on annotation methods, we don’t want to become service providers. We don’t want to be making tools and developing features for all of the different ways in which users might like to engage with the software. In a way, we don’t even like to think about users. We just think there are ways that this particular idea of annotating time-based media using language, names, tags, studying what’s happening in the video, returning to it, making it possible to search back quickly, move around it. We want to link our research on software to the development of this understanding of dance in connection to ways of generating explicit language, like forms that the computer can read. We’re also building a larger network of institutions and people with similar questions and projects.
The long-term aim is to make it easier for dance artists to document and publish ideas and processes. So it won’t be just a handful of high profile projects, but a kind of collecting network of people willing to share these materials. But of course, if they don’t want to share that’s completely up to them, they can keep their material entirely private, or within a group, or within a class.
What’s clear, however, at this point is that annotation is not a natural part of the dance studio process, and this presents the idea of this collecting network with a challenge. Video annotation requires time, sitting down, studying video in a more analytic way than is usual. Even though video usage in studios is practically ubiquitous with the access to devices, absolute ease of recording, uploading and distribution online through things like YouTube – annotation is not something dance makers are integrating into these procedures at present.
This could be discussed more. I think within the dance field in the past, there was a reaction to the use of video, a period of time historically when dancers’ concerns about video had more to do with its flatness, its 2D-ness. The fact that it was ‘not the body’ made it seem like it shouldn’t be given the same status as the live experience. But at this point and based on recent experiences with artists and students in different situations, I would suggest that video has become a proxy for the live body. Learning how to use it, to look at it, to read it, to learn from it, these potentials seem to have superseded the once more ideological position. So in this context, we think annotation starts to be potentially revelatory. That’s why we don’t want to be seen just as toolmakers. To integrate the software development as part of the research into process documentation and presentation is what’s interesting to us here.
But, as we are involved with making software, we can’t avoid sitting at this point of connection between computers and humans, so we are also working on research in relation to this topic. Here we want to resist some of the tendencies of computing science or engineering where there is a tremendous amount of research into the accurate tracking of movement, facial features etc. And it’s not that we’re not interested, we have that kind expertise on the team, and we are actively playing with some of the possibilities. But we also want to push back by proposing that what can be documented using manual annotation resists the attempt to automate, to classify, to organise in computing science and engineering terms.
And since we have tried to set the ground where we can participate as researchers rather than as tool providers, we are in the position to ask critical questions about the relationship between dance and data, between computer and human processing, machine readability, language and embodiment.
And we think annotation sits really well at this intersection between dance and choreographic knowledge, its documentation through digital recording and processing for sharing and dissemination. And since annotation practice is in no way developed in dance practice and education, we don’t have any kind of theory about it. We don’t really know how it might function in terms of dance. We do have examples from more scientific fields of gesture annotation, but these are different approaches, supporting the annotation or coding of activity for more quantitative kinds of analysis. Those aren’t uninteresting, but it’s also not what we’re trying to support here, at least not directly. And it may not take hold, this practice of annotation in the field, a number of things need to come together which we can’t really predict or control. But we still think it’s worth pursuing.
So I feel like I began there, in the early to mid-2000s, involved with these big research projects aiming to ‘publish choreographic ideas’, and now I’m here, at another point in time, trying to extend on what we learned there. And to make it possible for others to more easily collect and share that kind of material. That’s why methods of annotating are really interesting to me, and I plan to continue researching the practice of annotation and the presentation of annotated materials. But I’m not calling this literature any longer. It’s a different kind of thing. I’m not quite sure what it is yet though.
- The original TQW site is no longer available, so find the 6 versions here (accessed 31.12.2018):
- For some insight into current developments see: medium.com/motion-bank
- YouTube launched in 2005.
- Reminds me of Peter Hulton (www.arts-archives.org), a well-known documenter of performance practices who once said he was looking for someone ‘operating in imagery’. See: “A Thing Being Done”. An interview with Peter Hulton, by David Williams and Ric Allsopp, Exeter, England, May 2001. DIY? Ecologies of Practice. Writings on Dance 21, 14.
Reference List and Additional Resources
Blades, H., and E. Meehan. 2018. “Introduction.” In Performing Process: Sharing Dance and Choreographic Practice, edited by H. Blades and E. Meehan, 41. Bristol: Intellect Books.
deLahunta, S. 2013. “Publishing Choreographic Ideas: Discourse from Practice”, in SHARE: Handbook for Artistic Research, edited by Mick Wilson and Schelte van Ruiten, 170–177. Amsterdam: ELIA. Available motionbank.org/sites/motionbank.org/files/chor_ideas_essay_v4_wref.pdf (accessed 31.12.2018).
deLahunta, S., and P. Barnard. 2018. “Seeing the ‘Choreographic Mind’: three analytic lenses developed to probe and notate creative processes in dance.” In The Neurocognition of Dance: Mind, Movement and Motor Skills, 2nd edition, edited by B. Blaesing, M. Puttke, and T. Schack, 88–114. London: Taylor & Francis.
Hay, D. 1994. Lamb at the Altar: the story of a dance. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Hay, D. 2000. My Body, the Buddhist. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Press.
Hay, D. 2015. Using the Sky: a dance. London: Routledge.
Hulton, P., R. Allsopp, and D. Williams. 2001. “A Thing Being Done.” Interview with Peter Hulton, by David Williams and Ric Allsopp. DIY? Ecologies of Practice. Writings on Dance 21, p.14, Exeter, England, May 2001.
Scott deLahunta has worked as writer, researcher and organiser on a range of international projects bringing performing arts with a focus on choreography into conjunction with other disciplines and practices. He is currently Professor of Dance, Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University (UK), Senior Research Fellow, Deakin Motion.Lab, Deakin University (AUS) and co-director (with Florian Jenett) of Motion Bank hosted by Hochschule Mainz University of Applied Sciences. www.sdela.dds.nl