Dance, Emotion, Biofeedback and Sound: the Performer as a Generator of Interdisciplinary Language

Published on March 11th 2016 by Francisca Morand
emv-dh-vign-002Photograph: Damir Harasic (detail)
Emovere’s creative-investigative process allowed experimenting with a series of psychophysical, technological and sound materials that became determinants in the choreographic “form” that Emovere is founded on. The initial questions addressed how to expand the expressive possibilities of each discipline involved, as well as being able to find and define a sort of “interdisciplinary language”. What is this language like? When can we say that the different disciplinary languages blend so a new language can emerge that is not defined as disciplinary? How do these interdisciplinary and hybrid languages help produce reflections and new creation methodologies for the disciplines in play?

This article deals with the dance creation methodologies within an interdisciplinary context that were the founding resources for the piece’s creative and composition process. These methodologies were developed in the exploration-experimentation phase (first stage of the project) in order to establish replicable procedures of interdisciplinary dance-sound creation, one of the most important objectives of the project Emovere. I am interested in identifying and describing these procedures, not only due to the new tools that an interdisciplinary technological process provides to the emerging contemporary creation, but also due to the contribution that these reflections and devices generate within the dance discipline itself.

Tackling unknown topics and devices required an initial training and exploration process with different elements in order to find an alleged movement specific language for the piece: on one hand, training with the Alba Emoting emotional induction system1, and parallel to this, experimenting with the interaction system, which comprised biofeedback with physiological sensors and sound interaction modes. Both practices would be crucial not only for the interdisciplinary language, but also for the definition of the methodologies used in the construction of the Emovere performance piece.

Our encounter with the psychophysical training of emotion, in addition to the technological process, exposed us to materials and devices that were experimental, elusive and difficult to define in their form and content. This drove the exploration process towards the recognition of an emerging aesthetics, always dynamic, founded on the subjective processes of Emovere’s performers and sound artists. My fundamental concern as the project’s dance director was to understand and define the “way” in which the movement language was going to develop, what characteristics presented this embodiment when faced with these complex stimuli. At the end of this phase, we were able to conclude that the methodologies and devices used promoted an individual movement development by each performer, where each one experimented and composed a basic way of moving that would be their “own” language, placing the creation processes in a subjective field. This is how the Emovere performer became the main axis where the different devices intersected, from which most of the basic language featured by the piece emerged, not only due to the movement elements but also to the possibility of modulating the sound environment, whether consciously or reactively.

The critical nature of the performer’s role as an axis and conductor of the first materials required an intense “training” process with a methodology that could allow making the body processes conscious, with emotion on one hand and in the interactive processes with biofeedback on the other. This demanded a series of practices ranging from perceptive, kinesthetic and aural to the instantaneous translation and composition into movement in response to the body stimuli that these experiences drove.

The awareness that the body of each performer is the source of the language places the role of the dance director under the obligation to find methodologies that mobilize the dancers from their perception to their reflection about the process, including defining and specifying the techniques, becoming aware of their movement patterns, analyzing, decomposing and composing in order to subsequently put these resources into action in complex improvisations. This performer model responds to the concept of “living archive”2 (Hill, 2015). Emovere required a sensitive and imaginative performer that was also determined and bold in their mobilization of the materials, which allowed focusing on facilitating the creation process through physical and generative training methodologies3 (Galanter, 2003).

Training with Alba Emoting allowed us to understand emotion as a corporal event, where different physical actions generated psychological states; it allowed us to be aware and self-induce emotional states; to mobilize the bodily aspects that led us to emotion in different directions and recognize the differences among the performers in their way of embodying each emotion. But beyond the technical and human aspects that our experience with a psychophysical system enabled, the important part was to bring this experience to the creative process, which posed several challenges.

The corporal material emerged from Alba Emoting had potential for creation due to the strength of each pure emotion and the deep holistic process in which the emotional experience placed us. The experience of emotion allowed us to be in a familiar world due to the universal nature of the explored emotions, while at the same time it disoriented us and drove us to find ourselves in actions and relationships where the body moved fully, without preconceptions and outside narrative contexts that justified the appearance of a specific emotion. Emotion is then presented as pure simplicity, as a materiality that is abstract and concrete at the same time, not as a consequence of the events or as a response to the representation of the relationships, and much less as comments on the human condition. This experience with pure emotion also placed the performance’s discursive form in a concrete field due to the possibility of recognizing the emotions presented, and also in an abstract field because it didn’t contain a narrative that justified its appearance.
emov-dh-002Photograph: Damir Harasic
The process of generating a movement language from sound interaction required the performer to have a bodily approach that was very different from the one provided in the emotional induction training, marked by the engagement of perceptive kinesthetic and listening skills as well as cognitive technological ones. From the beginning, this process was founded on a mainly functional period before achieving a development of the movement that was also expressive. The functional period implied consulting and exploring with the sensors in order to understand their use with dancers, exploration sessions with movement qualities based on concepts from the Laban theory, biofeedback experimentation with electromyograms, exploration and improvisation with a first interaction model (in layers4) and different sound objects. The novelty of the experience demanded a constant assessment of the process and an individualized application of the conclusions. The performers were exposed to an “embodyment”5 process that required focused kinesthetic assistance in order to develop a more conscious and precise interactivity that allowed generating an expressive movement with relative control of the system. This relative control was permitted because it was associated with the voluntary movement system; however, the experience started to show that this “control” responded to a diversity of variables. This implied becoming familiar with a new vocabulary and being able to understand how the system works in order to have the ability to adjust in a particular manner according to personal body variables, in addition to the difficulties that arose in each session. From the beginning, the variability of the system pushed us to face a dynamic, ungraspable and elusive organicity, an aesthetics rooted in a system based on “biofeedback”6.
emv-dh-vign-001Fotografía: Damir Harasic
The appearance of a richer, more complex expressive language was possible when the performers started to engage in a sensitive and simultaneous dialogue with the set of elements proposed by the interaction system. This required building movement relationships with the sound qualities of the objects designed, a devising that implied processes of perception, association, translation, abstraction and representation of the sound environment that the movement itself was generating. This individual generative process was founded on the processes of sensitive listening and intuitive and immediate response to the sound stimulus, which produced a series of mental processes with responses in emotional gestures, qualities, images and abstract narratives from which an expressive movement language proposal was organized and developed. Therefore, more than a response to the control or reaction process, this language was rather a sensitive dialogue with the entire system. This caused the entire body of the performer to become integrated without having to think about activating areas of the body that did not regulate the sound, but rather the body moved due to the construction of a movement that is the metaphor, representation and interpretation of the experience of feeling oneself, hearing oneself and having a dialogue with the stimuli that emerged when the sound environment was modulated. Then, this metaphor of the body generates a language that produces a sensitive, emotional and imaginative sense with the sound.

But is it possible to define this language? The constant flow of sound information forced the performer to make immediate decisions, increasingly conscious, but always built in the present and attentive to a dynamic, unpredictable system. It was in this stage that the personal archive, together with the interactive practice, merged individually in order to give way to a particular language, where movement patterns emerged that laid the foundations for the way in which each performer developed their own interactive body language. Therefore, it is possible to say that the expressive body language that became visible was open, influenced by predictable and unpredictable variables at the same time, susceptible to being modified, enriched and becoming more complex due to the influence of the other performers’ experience, but never susceptible to being transmitted in the same way to another body. The body of the performer appears as a “dynamic image”, a flow of changes and relationships between their body and the sound they voluntarily and involuntarily trigger, which places them in a conscious instability, in an iterative process of perceiving, feeling, acting and expressing creatively through movement.

1 It is a scientific method for inducing, modeling and experiencing emotions from postural and respiratory patterns, that is, from the physical (what has been called bottom-up emotional activation process). It is used in various areas that range from the training of actors (currently a mandatory reading in some universities) to coaching in companies, including psychotherapy.
This system was born in the seventies in a laboratory of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics of the School of Medicine of Universidad de Chile, where by measuring the physical parameters of emotional states, Susana Bloch and Guy Santibáñez discovered the existence of a different physiological pattern for each one of the basic emotions of the human being, which turned out to be six: joy, sadness, anger, fear, tenderness and eroticism. It was discovered that each one of them corresponds to adaptive needs of the human being and that they are universal, ahistorical and acultural.

2 According to Hill, the performer can be seen as a “living archive” that contributes a series of knowledge, latent information and experiences to the creative research: their training, usually from various systems and techniques, experiences with different choreographers and collaborative processes, life experiences, as well as particular historical and cultural contexts. All this latent information can be activated, transformed and processed during improvisation or in real-time choreography, and it is extremely important in technological interaction contexts. The concept of living archive uses a holistic perspective of the choreographic creative process, especially in live performing arts, as it combines visible and long-lasting aspects of working with invisible and ephemeral dimensions that emerge during interactive processes.

3 Philip Galanter (2003) defines Generative Art as an artistic practice where the artist uses a system, such as a set of natural laws, a computer program, a machine or any invention or procedure that generates a certain creative autonomy that contributes to the development or presentation of the work of art. He suggests that the term “generative” must be understood as an artistic work method more than an artistic form or attitude, as generative tools can be used in different contexts. The main objective of using generative processes is described as “the potential for making change emerge” in the creative process. It also makes a distinction between a (re)generative process, or renovation of what is already known, which is predictable; and an emerging process, where unpredictable innovations occur from the recombination of what is recognizable.

4 See a description of the layer model in “Designing Sound Interactions for Biosignals and Dancers” by Javier Jaimovich.

5 Embodyment is a multidisciplinary research area whose main discussion revolves around the relationship between body, mind, action and knowledge. The first notions and discussions can be traced to the philosophy that would influence the cognitive current, where Heidegger’s (1927) initial exploration of the relationship between body, mind and knowledge is important. The concept was established recently and mainly from the perspective of cognitive sciences, such as psychology and neuroscience, which have demonstrated that the body is the foundation for the formation of knowledge, where the physical experience is the one that is translated or “mapped” by the mind in processes that would imply abstraction and representation for the construction of metaphors of the experienced world.