Author: Zeynep Gündüz
First publication: 01/01/2010
Language: English
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 6
Made available by: Bloemlezing Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek (VDO)
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Naber, R., B. Nieuwboer, L. Wildschut (eds.) (2010), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 6. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.104-112

According to Steve Dixon (2007), author of the book Digital Performance (2007), the increasing integration of digital technologies into performances, especially in the 1990s, led to the perceived necessity for a new term to denote the distinct identity of performances created with digital technologies. Subsequently, the term ‘digital performance’ emerged in performance studies and university education. Digital performance, for Dixon, entails a broad spectrum of artistic practices as well as various types of digital technologies. He describes it as ‘the conjunction of computer technologies with live performance arts, as well as gallery installations and, CD-ROMs, and digital games where performance constitutes a central aspect of either its content or form’. (p.x)

Digital dance is a sub-genre of digital performance and integrates computer technologies as a major element in its materialization and realization. Being a relatively young artistic practice, little critical work has been written on digital dance.[i] As will be explained later, the writing on digital dance practice is largely written by a close and intimate community and is to a great extent overwhelmingly positive in its appreciation of this dance genre. In general, these proponents of digital dance claim that digital dance is a new dance form and that the fundamental integration of digital technologies in its practice modifies some of the established cultural practices of dance and changes the perception of the role of technologies.

This article sets out to show by means of a literature review how and why academics generally claim that digital dance is a ‘new’ form of dance that expands dance practice. Because digital dance practice comes in many forms[ii] and in order to restrict the scope of the review, the review has been limited to dance performances created with motion-sensing based interactive technologies. An extra motivation for this focus is that the integration of interactive technologies in digital dance, in the words of Rubidge (2001), ‘seems to hold an unchallenged place as the ‘raison d’être’ of the genre’. (p.38) In these performances, a highly complex sensing device capable of reading human input (meaning physical movement), such as infrared lights or sensors, collects data from the dancer’s movements. This data is sent to a pre-programmed computer that is systematically related to the input. The computer analyzes and renders the data and translates it in real-time (meaning without a significant delay between the time of the input and time of the output) into visual images (and when possible sound) of various kinds, which are generally projected on the back wall of the stage.

The review examines the proponents’ arguments on the shifts in digital dance practice in a chronological and thematic order, starting from its creation, moving to its exhibition, and finally to its perception. The review highlights three themes from the literature. In brief these are: first, the case for shifts in existing roles and relationships in the practice of digital dance; second, the case for the establishment of new roles and relationships, the most important being the new roles for technologies; and third, the case for a new distribution of power.

Subsequently, the review draws attention to a niche in the literature for theoretical contributions on the (new) role of interactive technologies in digital dance performances. This is based on the newness of the research domain, the limited number of contributors to the field, and perhaps the dual identity of the authors writing on digital dance. These authors, whom this article labels as ‘pioneers’ of digital dance, possess a dual identity because they are not only writers but also active practitioners in the field of digital dance, mostly working as choreographers and/or dancers. Coming from practice may explain the current focus in digital dance literature on the body rather than on technology within the performance. It is also noteworthy that the field of digital dance emerged within a cultural backdrop of optimism in media theory and the idea of liberating human beings from the constraints of the body in the 1990s. As a result, this project aims to contribute to existing scholarly work on digital dance by developing a theoretical framework in order to examine the new roles of technologies in digital dance.

Pioneers of digital dance and selection of literature
As explained above, the majority of academics specialized in the field of digital dance possess dual identities: as scholar and as choreographer/dancer. It is this double identity with which most authors describe, analyze, and comment on either their own artistic practice or the artistic work of their peers in the literature on digital dance. Among the pioneers of digital dance are Sarah Rubidge, Susan Kozel, Gretchen Schiller, Susan Broadhurst, Thecla Schiphorst, Mark Coniglio, Johannes Birringer, Richard Povall, Robert Wechsler, Armando Meniccaci, Emanuele Quinz, and Scott deLahunta.[iii]

These individuals have occupied active roles in the field of digital dance both as scholars and choreographers since its beginnings in the early 1990s. In addition to their academic and practical work, these individuals established an online community and online archive of dance performances integrating (among others) interactive technologies, which has helped shape what today has come to be known as digital dance.[iv] Based on the dual identity of the individuals listed above and the small community of digital dance practitioners, this article will henceforth refer to this relatively small group as the ‘pioneers’ of digital dance.

The majority of literature on digital dance reviewed in this article was published after the year 2000. Literature published on digital dance before 2000 is rare and/or takes the form of individual articles. It is not until after the year 2000 that the literature on digital dance began to proliferate.[v] Not only were more and more articles being published on the subject, full books written by a single author or compilations brought together by editors also began to appear on the market. According to Dixon (2007), the decade between 1990 and 2000 represents the ‘golden era’ of digital performance because of the rapid proliferation in its practice. Thus, academic literature written after 2000 should, ideally, function as an objective reflection on the decade of artistic research and practice in digital dance.

Re-distributing roles and relationships in digital dance

The practice of digital dance relies on digital technologies for the realization of its content and form. Being a combination of physical movement and digital technologies, the choreography in digital dance portrays what is here called ‘expanded choreography’. The choreography is expanded because in addition to the performance of the dancer, it now needs to take into account the dancer performing with technology and the performance of technology itself. The complex application of the notion of performance demands new skills from the creators and affects the ‘traditional’ roles of choreographer, dancer, and technology during the process of creation of digital dance.

The ‘paradigm of collaboration’ of Richard Povall (1993, 2001), a composer[vi] acquainted with interactive technologies and digital dance, establishes a good starting point concerning the changes in roles. Povall (2001) argues that this newly emerged form of dance fundamentally changes the distribution of power structures and roles of the art form. He claims that digital dance performances require the choreographer to relinquish the omnipotent role he enjoys in traditional dance performances in favor of a more egalitarian, collaborative relationship primarily with a computer programmer. In the reasoning of Povall, the paradigm of collaboration differs from the still resonant 19th century notion, in which the creators’ scratches on paper represent some kind of unchangeable prophetic gift. For Povall, working within a paradigm of collaboration requires the choreographer to relinquish a huge amount of control over the artwork, since it can only come to life in collaboration with the programmer.[vii] As Povall explains, in an interactive dance performance ‘the finished piece, even in its final form, cannot be realized until all elements are in place, working in harmony’. (p.457)

Collaborating closely with a computer programmer is necessary because the interactive motion tracking systems used in digital dance performances require expertise generally outside of the scope of a choreographer. Therefore, following this logic, it is practically impossible for any choreographer to create an interactive performance alone. This implies that there is a decrease in the power of the choreographer in digital dance.

This new paradigm, according to Povall (1993), stands in direct opposition to the ‘conventional’ working paradigm in which the supporting disciplines, such as the lighting or sound technician or programmer etc, bring their separate pre-designed parts to the table as and when the choreographer requires them to do so.

Like Povall, Sarah Rubidge (2004) too underlines the ‘cross-disciplinary nature’ of digital dance that necessitates an interdependent relationship between choreographer and programmer and transforms digital dance into an inevitably collaborative art form. Moreover, Rubidge argues that the collaboration with the programmer adds to the artistic creativity because the working together of the ‘kinetic mind’ (meaning the dancers’ and choreographers’ mode of thinking) and the ‘technical’ mind’ (meaning the engineers’ mode of thinking) often leads to richer end results. As Rubidge explains, the collaboration between choreographer and computer programmer does not remain restricted to the technical skills of artists from different disciplines but it includes the exchange of ‘compositional ideas, which, in combination, give the work a particular kind of artistic richness’. (p. 3 of 9)[viii]

From the points above, within digital dance, it is apparent that the programmer becomes a major creative source rather than solely providing technical support for the performance. This is evident from the choreographer and programmer’s name being given equal prominence as collaborative creators in the credits of a digital dance performance.

According to Povall (2001), in the paradigm of collaboration, in addition to the programmer, the choreographer must also collaborate with the performer. Now the choreographer is required to develop certain ‘seeds’ of movement material, which they hand over to the performers for further development. Accordingly, Povall concludes that this way of working with interactive technologies is new because it changes the power structure between the choreographer and the performer, which Povall labels as the ‘maker/performer’ paradigm. For him, this traditional paradigm represents a hierarchical, ‘top-down’ manner of working in which the dancer receives movement from the choreographer.

In turn, the performer is required to collaborate with the technology because as Erin Manning (2006) claims, in digital dance, interactive technology shapes the choreography to a certain extent. She explains that the interactive system only functions under specific circumstances that require the dancer to opt for certain types of movements or certain locations in space. Manning’s claim, when seen from the perspective of changing roles and distribution of power in digital dance, implies a certain increase in the importance of the position of interactive technologies because they also become co-creators of the performance.

From the arguments listed above, it can be concluded that the paradigm of collaboration has changed existing roles and power structures in dance on several levels. First, digital dance is seen as providing added value for the cultural practice of dance because its collaborative nature enriches artistic creativity. Second, it removes the sole authority in dance performances away from the choreographer. As Povall points out, the teamwork demanded from a digital performance made with interactive technologies is more egalitarian because it shares the ‘power’ and authority of the choreographer with the programmer and the performer. Third, as a result of the redistribution of power described within the paradigm, performers working with interactive media have greater freedom to develop their own movement phrase in relation to the technology.

The pioneers of digital dance argue that the distribution of power in digital dance is further evolved as motion-sensing based interactive technology is introduced as a ‘new’ performer onstage, alongside the physical dancer. The main reason for this claim seems to be based on the real-time responsiveness, which is a technical feature of interactive media, and is illustrated in the following paragraphs with the claims of David Saltz (2001), Mark Coniglio (2005) and Emanuele Quinz (2002) and Robert Wechsler (1997). To remind ourselves, real-time refers to the ability of the computer to translate external input into desired output with no significant delay between the two processes.

The importance of the intrinsic features of interactive technologies can be seen in the claims of Saltz (2001), a scholar and practitioner, who writes explicitly on the role of interactive technologies in theater.[ix] For Saltz (2001), it is necessary to distinguish the difference of interactive technologies from non-interactive media. He explains that interactive media differ from analogue media in the sense that there is no longer a mechanical connection between the media content and the input that triggers it since computers can store and re-create information. What is more, Saltz points out, the specific programming of interactive media allows direct manipulation of the digital information, as it is received from the input, in real-time.

According to Saltz (2001), the intrinsic qualities of interactive media that react in ‘real-time’ to the movements of the performer changes the status of interactive technologies from their commonly accepted status of technologies in terms of visual décor and/or as recording technologies. He claims that recording media have never found an essential place in the performing arts, simply for the reason that recording media avoid encountering risks. But this view is now changing because interactive media offer compatibility with live performance, an aspect that Coniglio (2005) considers fascinating. In this aspect, motion-sensing technologies can be seen to overcome the tension between ‘live’ performance that entails the possibility of ‘misperformances’, and recorded media that reproduce the exact same content each time.

Based on his experience in his own ‘digital theater’ performances, Saltz (2001) claims that interactive media enable new possibilities of staging narratives and produce a ‘dramatic relationship’ between performer and media. He claims that the instantaneous responsiveness of interactive media renders digital interactive technologies into a ‘performer’. Hence, through Saltz, the ideology of the paradigm of collaboration is additionally extended into performance through technology being given a central role in its own right. Moreover, the characteristics of interactive technologies create the perception that technology and dancer enjoy an uninhibited relationship without external mediation of wires, which Robert Wechsler (1997) describes as ‘direct interaction’ between media and performer (p.10). Emanuele Quinz (2002) claims that the use of interactive media in performance reverses the perspective that considers technical mediation as an obstacle to physical immediacy. Coniglio goes one step further and claims that interactive media can have a similar ‘sense of liveness as the human performers’ (Coniglio in Dixon (2007 p. 197). This corresponds to Wechsler’s (1997) view that interactive technologies in digital dance function not as tools but as supple agency. The arguments listed above emphasize how interactive media modify the role of technologies used in dance performances as a result of their ability to respond in spontaneous ways to the movements of the dancer.

As the arguments of the pioneers of digital dance point out, there is a shift in the perception of the role of interactive technologies in digital dance. In the design of the performance, the programmer must first evaluate any technology that may be used in the performance quantitatively to determine what it can achieve. During the performance, however, the output of the technology becomes an integral part of the performance and as such is judged in a qualitative way. In other words, although the technology operates on the basis of a quantitative logic, its evaluation is made on the basis of the perceptual effects that it creates. If we accept the perceptual effects of technology in digital dance, then this implies that we must assess technologies on the basis of the same criteria as the performers. And this is evident in the claim of a mutual dialogue between dancer and technology within the literature of digital dance.

The idea that digital dance brings a new perception of dance is claimed by more than one of the pioneers of digital dance. Menicacci (2002), for example, praises the integration of computer technologies in general in dance because of the way they affect the practice of dance and choreography and lead to a renewal of the perception of dance as an art form. Rubidge  (2004) locates the new perception in digital dance in the way this genre aims to illustrate how the body and (the output of) the technology establish a dialogue together and how they create a kinetic and poetic world on the basis of this encounter.

For Dixon (2007), there is no doubt that the new perceptions of dance result from the advanced and sophisticated media hardware and software now available and exploited in digital dance performances. In his view, before, the dialogue between performer and technology once resembled a conversation between two people who could understand each other’s language to some extent but were forced to artificially slow down to compensate for the gaps in the understanding. Now, however, he argues that the language has been mastered far more on both sides (performer to software and software to performer) and encapsulates a dialogue between the technology and the performer. Johannes Birringer (2008), too, identifies that in digital dance technology and performer are brought together in a demonstrably communicative process, rather than the interactive system and performer being understood as separate and unrelated entities. In his own words, digital dance ‘bridges the organic and inorganic forms, it evolves as a coupling with technically expanded virtual domains’. (p. 121)

According to Birringer the quality of real-time spontaneity can be described to create a pas-de-deux, or duet, between performer and technology. Birringer (2004) claims that this pas-de-deux initiates an ‘aesthetics of process’, in which the performance transforms into sequences or potential concepts to be activated independently in each performance.

Birringer’s claim shares striking similarities to the arguments of Povall concerning the decreasing authority of the choreographer within the paradigm of collaboration. Moreover, he shares Povall’s opinion on the partiality of choreography in digital dance, that is, digital dance comes to ‘life’ through the specific encounter between the dancer and the output of the technical system.

The reason for the emergence of this new aesthetic, as Birringer (2008) sees it, is because the main focus in digital dance is not placed solely on either the physical dance, or the interactive technology, but on how both components build up a two-way communication together. According to Birringer, this translation leads to the creation of something that neither the dance nor the technology could create alone. Incidentally, here, there is a considerable overlap with the claims of Birringer and Rubidge concerning the aesthetics of digital dance. Rubidge (2004), too, claims that in digital dance a dynamic and ever-shifting communication between the performer and the output (visuals and sound) of the specific interactive system is what can be considered so new and special to the aesthetics of the genre. Hence, the close collaboration between dance and technology presents added value for dance because it enables dance to achieve a ‘higher’ position that is only possible in digital dance.

Towards a theory of agency of technologies in digital dance
The integration of interactive technologies into the choreography in digital dance creates shifts in roles and relationships in the cultural practice of dance. As the literature review demonstrates, the integration of technology in digital dance has led to fundamental changes that are largely concerned with the role of technology, in particular on the level of perception. For the most part, pioneers perceive the effects of this integral incorporation of interactive media as positive: from their perspective, interactive technologies enrich dance as art form and, thus, add to existing perceptions of dance. Interactive technology, according to the claims by the pioneers of digital dance, has a central role in digital dance performances and is now a fully-fledged dance partner alongside the physical dancer. The pioneers commonly agree that digital dance performances created with real time, motion-sensing interactive technologies illustrate a mutual communication between the dancer and technology onstage.

To recapitulate, the literature of digital dance is largely written by its pioneers with a similar research agenda, which was to study the position of the body within the virtual domain and the role of technology as prosthesis. As such, the literature offers no direct contribution to the niche of the new role of technology and the communicative process between dancer and technology in digital dance. To account for the key claim of the pioneers that a meaningful dialogue exists between dancer and technology, technology needs to be considered as something akin to the performer. Here, a theory of performance and performativity is a good starting point.

[i] Already in 1998, Sarah Rubidge underlines the need to develop criteria to evaluate digital dance, which she repeats in 2004. Yet, Rubidge’s call for developing criteria for the evaluation of digital dance has not received a profound response within the community of digital dance. Rubidge (1998) ‘Reflections on Choreography in the Digital Domain’ and ‘Dance Criticism in the Light of Digital Dance’ available at:

[ii] Some examples of the different types of technologies used in digital are: locative media, telematics, robotics, motion-capture, games engines, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence, bio-art and medical science.

[iii] Of course there are many other international contributors to the field of digital dance; yet, I have chosen to focus on authors with  ‘dual identities’ (practitioner and writer) who have been closely engaged in the field of digital dance in terms of theory and practice since early 1990s.

[iv] The first virtual community is ‘Dance and technology zone’, an internet-based community where artists, who are particularly interested in using new media and information technologies in the creation and performance of dance, dance theatre and related live performance works, can share their experiences and works with each other. Currently, the ‘dance-tech’ network, established by Marlon Barrios Solano has replaced the ‘dance and technology zone’.

[v] For example: Dinkla, S,  Leeker, M. (ed). (2002). Dance and Technology. Moving towards Media Productions; Quinz, E. (ed).(2002) Digital Performance. Anomalie_Digital arts (2; Carver, G, Beardon, C. (ed). (2005) New Visions in Performance. The impact of digital technologies; Broadhurst, S, Machon J. (ed). (2006). Performance and Technology. Practices of Virtual embodiment and Interactivity; Dixon, S. (2007) Digital Performance. A History of New Media in Theatre. Dance, Performance Art, And Installation; Kozel, S. (2007) Closer. Performance, Technologies, Phenomenology; Broadhurst, S. (2007)Digital Practices: Aesthetic and Neuroesthetic Approaches to Performance and Technology; Birringer, J. (2008) Performance, Technology&Science; Chatzichristodoulou, M, Jeffries, J, Zerihan, R. (ed). (2009) Interfaces of Performance; Butterworth, J, Wildschut, L. (ed). (2009). Contemporary choreography: a critical reader.

[vi] Although he is a composer, Povall is the co-founder of the digital dance-theatre company “half/angel’’. Hence, he has considerable amount of experience in the field of digital dance.

[vii] In dance, the decrease in the choreographer’s authority and control over the artwork is part of a trend that has started with post-modern dance in the 1960s and is still a current theme in dance practice. However, there is a fundamental difference between the decrease of control of the choreographer within postmodern dance, which was part of an ideological/political movement, and a decrease in the control of the choreographer in digital dance, which is largely based on practical reasons. Indeed, few choreographers master the language of the complex technologies they incorporate in their performances; therefore, most choreographers have no option but to collaborate with a programmer.

[viii] Rubidge, Sarah. ‘Dance Criticism in the Light of Digital Dance’. Paper presented at the Taipei National University of the Arts, seminar on dance criticism and interdisciplinary practice, July 2004,  <>. Accessed on 06.2008

[ix] Although Saltz is not a specialist in digital dance, he incorporates interactive technologies in theatre performances, such as in Hair (1997) and Kaspar (1999), and his arguments on the relationship between dancer and technology are relevant for this article. Moreover, his definition of interactivity as “sounds and images stored, and in many cases created on a computer, which the computer produces in response to a live performers’ actions” is in one line with the interactive process illustrated in the case studies of this article. For these reasons, Saltz’s arguments can be applied to refer to the relationship between performer and technology in digital dance.


From assistants to performers: the changing roles of computer technologies in digital dance
This PhD project examines the relationship between dancer and interactive technologies in digital dance performances. Most literature on digital dance is written by a small and intimate community, which this thesis refers to as the ‘pioneers’ of digital dance. The pioneers of digital dance are largely positive in their evaluation of the engagement between dancer and technology in digital dance and largely agree on the claim of a dialogic relationship between the human and non-human entities onstage. However, they do not offer a theoretical framework to explain the dialogic relationship between performer and technology in digital dance. Therefore, the main aim of this thesis is to provide one theoretical model by looking at theories of performativity and interactivity.
Promotors: Prof.dr. Jose van Dijck (UvA) and Prof. dr. Maaike Bleeker (UU)



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