In a dance lab with Martha Graham
At Google’s New York offices, a tiny room with bright green walls and a maze of wires had been transformed into something resembling a science lab, by way of a Danny Kaye movie. But instead of microscopes and white coats, there were dancers and leotards.
Google — through Google Arts and Culture — is on a mission to find new ways of braiding technology with culture.
For two weeks in May it partnered with the Martha Graham Dance Company for a residency in which members of the Graham team worked with artists and Google technologists on several experiments. (Google has held several artist residencies in its lab in Paris, but this is the first time dance has been featured.)
Why the Graham company? For MJ. Newman, the project lead at Google, the relationship with the Graham organization is, in part, because of its forward-thinking mentality. “The Graham center has always been very eager about being on the cutting-edge of technology and looking for what’s new,” he said. “They were the first ones that jumped into my head.”
It’s fitting: The company’s founder, Martha Graham (1894-1991), was a revolutionary. Considered the mother of modern dance, she transformed her art form by stripping her movement, rooted in the pelvis, down to its purest essence.
This isn’t the first time the Graham organization and Google have teamed up. The first came in 2011 when they created the Google doodle in honor of Graham’s 117th birthday. Next, beginning in 2015, was a partnership with Google Arts and Culture to create exhibitions for the Google site.
During the recent residency, some projects were more successful than others, but all were well worth watching: Dancers moved silkily inside 3-D environments that were then projected onto screens for mixed-reality experiences. Graham’s “Lamentation,” from 1930, was reimagined using archival imagery of the solo projected onto a moving dancer. And a Graham dance was captured in 3-D, transforming Anne Souder, in a motion-capture suit, into an avatar — like a figure in a video game — when her performance was transferred to the screen.
The residency didn’t just expand the Graham company’s relationship with Google. It was also a continuation of what Janet Eilber, the group’s artistic director, has been doing for years — experimenting with Graham’s core collection of works and technique.
“We have discovered that the essential Graham canon — the very best of Graham — is so pure that it can be dressed up in a whole variety of ways and still speak clearly,” Eilber said in an interview. “You can decorate it in many different ways or use it as a springboard for many different things.” For Eilber, technology is a tool with which to do that.
Would Graham approve? “She, if anyone, understood and desired new ways of getting to audiences,” Eilber said. “Martha wanted those techniques.”
“Let’s do the pelvis,” visual artist SoHyun Bae said in one of the sessions.
Bae was referring to “Pelvic Terrain,” from her “Jasper Lake” series of paintings that inspired a new work created with Tilt Brush — a Google tool used to make 3-D paintings. The result was a virtual-reality environment for dance improvisation.
As Graham dancer Natasha Diamond-Walker put on a virtual-reality headset, Bae said, “Just think of yourself as water.”
Onlookers couldn’t see what Diamond-Walker was looking at through the headset — the environment Bae had created — but her sudden stillness registered that she was enthralled. “Oh, wow,” she said softly. “I see a pelvis here. And a tailbone.”
Gradually, Diamond-Walker began to move, stretching ribbonlike arms as she carved through the space. Eilber asked three other dancers, Laurel Dalley-Smith, Xin Ying and Souder, to enter the performance area, one by one. “You decide when to come in,” she said. “Build off the nymph that goes in before you.”
The three additional dancers, headset-free and interacting with Diamond-Walker, mirrored movement quality of one another, sequentially. It was a sensual, gossamer melding of bodies that grew increasingly layered.
When it was over, Diamond-Walker described the environment she had seen in the headset: “You could see the brush strokes — there were no sharp endings. It was feathered out and curved like a ripple almost, like if you had dropped something into water.”
It’s a sensorial shift for dancers to enter virtual reality, one that has changed their relationship with their bodies and with their dancing. “You become so absorbed in your world that it’s almost freer,” Dalley-Smith said. “You’re not so self-conscious; you’re not thinking or just feeling about what’s coming next. You’re fed by this world.”
From Charcoal to Virtual Reality
Before the residency, Bae spent months making charcoal sketches of the Graham dancers at the company’s studios simply because, as she put it, “I feel so alive watching them.”
She became proficient with Tilt Brush, which aided her in creating 3-D performance landscapes, but she also painted while the dancers performed — essentially tracing their shapes and moving with them as they did sections from Graham works or Graham-inspired improvisations. She often finished those sessions as out of breath as they were.
Of these experiments, Eilber said, “They didn’t transcend, but they did tell us what the potential was going to be.”
And they gave her ideas for the future: In other words, Eilber said, you could have an artist create a virtual set and a choreographer create for that virtual world: “How that would serve us, where it would live? Those are all questions we have.”
An Eerie Process
During the residency, creative progress was made in reimagining “Lamentation,” Graham’s solo in which a dancer wearing a tube-shaped costume comes to symbolize grief.
Over the years, Eilber has invited contemporary choreographers to create “Lamentation Variations” as a way to expand on and explore the solo’s breadth. For the Google residency, the company teamed up with Tyler Henry, who, with a Kinect camera, used optical flow, which tracks movement, to recast the solo.
As Diamond-Walker performed it — with her body half-obscured behind a scrim — archival images from past performances flashed by, mirroring her positions as the Kinect camera pulled photographs from a database Henry had created.
“With our dancer dancing behind the scrim and then the rapid-fire harrowing poses from other generations overlaid on top of her,” Eilber said, “it transformed and transcended into being a real work of art.”
For Diamond-Walker, the process was eerie. She could see the images of past dancers, including Graham, go by — their poses revealing profound pain and grief — as she moved through the choreography in slow-motion.
“It was kind of outer-body or supernatural,” she said. “I would hold a certain movement until Martha Graham’s image through the data clicked in to view. Suddenly, we would be doing it together. It was almost like dancing with spirits or the ghosts of lamenters past. It was very emotional.”
“You’re kind of seduced by the technology,” Eilber said. “But pretty quickly I realized, wait a minute — why us? Why dancers, and why Martha Graham dancers? That has to be part of the equation. Otherwise, you’re just playing around like you’re at a kid’s birthday party.”
In the coming weeks, the company will discuss how the experiments that worked — namely Henry’s “Lamentation” — can make their way into the real world. A couple of presenters, Eilber said, including Jacob’s Pillow and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are interested.
“We’re trying to put together something that is substantial enough to install somewhere, and we think we have a lot of the elements,” she said. “It’s just the time to think about next steps.”
And the question remains: Is it better than just dancing? “It’s not that we’re trying to make ‘Lamentation’ better, by any means,” Eilber said. “We’re trying to find new ways to consider Graham’s art form.”
Collaborating with Google has allowed that to happen. “My main revelation was that Graham had to be about Graham being integrated with technology,” she said, “not just playing around with technology. We don’t feel like we reached the end of the journey, but we found potential.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
GIA KOURLAS © 2018 The New York Times
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