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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Motion capture
Animated, Winter 1999. Terry Braun talks to Lois Keidan about Digital Dancing
The ebullient and energetic Terry Braun is many things to many people - you may know him as an award winning television producer and director for the renowned Illuminations Television, or as a multimedia producer and designer for illuminations Interactive or as a senior consultant on multimedia and information technology to the Arts Council of England or chair of the Combined Arts Project Fund Panel. But you will undoubtedly best know him as the brain child of Digital Dancing - that brave new world where choreographic and digital artists collide and collaborate.

Braun's first association with dance for 'the screen' came through the ubiquitous and influential Val Bourne. He was invited, as a television director, to a practical workshop with Bob Lockyer and Charles Atlas on directing dance for video and television. With his appetite whetted, in 1984 he 'adapted' (as opposed to simply documented for broadcast) a Tom Jobe piece, Run Like Thunder, for Channel 4 and this led to 1987's Dance Lines initiative. In this he collaborated with choreographers Siobhan Davies and Ian Spink to make samplers of work not just for, but with, television and in the process explore how a work is structured, edited and 'seen' through a lens. Under arts editor Michael Kustow such collaborations flourished and Channel 4 continued to champion new possibilities for dance on television.

However Kustow's successor at Channel 4, Waldemar Januscek, was not the slightest bit interested in dance, so that was that. Braun left the Dance Lines project in 1990 to set up Illuminations Interactive but returned to the fray in 1992 for a collaboration with Shobana Jeyasingh for BBC 2's new Dance For The Camera series (Dance Lines' heir apparent). In Jeyasingh, Braun found another artist who had the maturity to experiment and the desire to explore new forms. The resulting film, Duets With Automobiles, was considered by both artists to be a jointly authored work - a genuine collaboration conceived and produced specifically for broadcast.

Braun is still clearly angry and frustrated by television's marginalization of dance at such a crucial time. Here were some artistically exciting, and award-winning, new developments which were highly regarded in television and dance circles and were attracting international interest, but, with rare exceptions, television just did not want to know.

However in the early 1990s Braun had already started to look at the empowerment that the new media of digital technology seemed to offer contemporary dance artists. Its high performance and relatively low cost suggested another way of manifesting ideas for choreographers that was not dependent on television's permission, or even as it turned out, on too much funding. And there was something else - the medium of television itself, with its deadlines and schedules, had affected everything from the length of a piece to the nature of its process. New technology seemed to have no such restrictions - its possibilities seemed not only controllable but limitless.

With thanks again to Bourne, Braun got his chance to open up this new chapter in 1993's Dance Umbrella when he invited Mark Baldwin to be a case study in the use of new technology as a creative tool. The idea of the project was to provide space, equipment, software and creative support over an intense afternoon workshop where the emphasis was on making rather than discussing. At the time there were countless conferences offering discourse about new technologies but few chances for artists to try things out. From Baldwin's experience it seemed that the very opportunity to be actually able to do something with digital media in itself satisfied a huge need. Picking up on the conversations that had begun with Dance Lines, Digital Dancing was born.

Braun sees Digital Dancing as much as a process as a project. His desire was, and is, to create a space and an infrastructure that responds to the demands of choreographers to creatively engage with new technologies and to work in partnership with digital artists, not as technicians, but as collaborators. Digital Dancing is a fluid and changing process in pursuit of new forms for presentation and experience of contemporary dance. It is a process to empower artists in new technologies by taking the lead away from graphic artists and television technicians and giving it back to visual and dance artists.

Supported by an Arts for Everyone Lottery grant, Digital Dancing really took off in 1997's Dance Umbrella festival. Through open applications Braun, Bourne and their panel offered bursaries to teams of choreographers and digital artists working in creative collaboration. Again the drive behind the project was practice first, discourse second - to support new ways of making and doing that would in turn encourage new ways of thinking and critiquing. Braun singled out three exceptional and in some ways seminal illustrations of virtual choreography from Digital Dancing 1997 which continued to develop for 1998. Jane Dudley, for example, collaborated with animator Gillian Lacey and digital artist Timothy Arnold on Dancing Inside, a powerful a piece about what it means for Dudley, aged 87 and arthritic, to be old and facing death. Here new technology enabled Dudley to continue to express her themes of pain, ageing and dying through a movement language. Presented on two monitors, one screen showed Dudley's talking head whilst the other used digitised techniques to construct and represent images of her body choreographically.

Markedly different, but the result of similar collaborative processes and approaches, was 1997's Daylight Robbery, a collaboration between choreographer Ruth Gibson and digital artist Bruno Motelli. Daylight Robbery was a short animated film about a couple who are robbed whilst on holiday and are forced to reconsider their world views. The key point about this project is that neither artist is an animator. Here new technologies enabled the movement and the characters of the narrative to be driven by a digital artist and a choreographer, not a film animator. For Braun, this is 'lens free' film making and the possibilities are extraordinary.

Richard Lord is that rare breed - a choreographer and a mathematician - and his 1997 piece, Cyberkinesis, demonstrated for Braun one of the most interesting aspects of Digital Dancing, what he calls the Theatre of Motion Capture. For Braun motion capture, like live performance, exists in real time and is therefore a "rich vein to mine" for artistic enquiries. It works by using sensors placed on key points of the body to track recognisable shapes, forms and movements. Lord saw the creative possibilities in the visual imagery being used to actually create motion capture and appropriated it for himself to construct and digitally re manifest images of the body in space and motion.

Considering the range of possibilities suggested by these particular projects I was interested to know what Braun had learnt along the road from dance for television to dance online? What did he think was coming next and what does he feel is needed to make that a reality and not just a promise?

For Braun the key questions facing both the project and the concept of Digital Dancing are, unsurprisingly perhaps, the same as for any other emergent artform - how it develops artistically, where it is physically located, how it is resourced, how it is critically framed and how it is accessed by the public. But for Digital Dancing I imagine that these questions have a particularly urgency: new technology is a rapidly expanding and shifting medium that as yet has no real context or critical framework but that can excite and interact with audiences in as yet unimaginable ways. In parallel to this it is also in danger of being dominated and driven by shall we say 'non cultural' imperatives. Digital Dancing is a strategy to place the artist, the choreographer, at the centre of the milieu and in control of its agendas. How it develops artistically and how it is supported, contextualized and experienced are therefore critical questions to be addressed.

Braun believes that the investments in time, space and expertise made by Digital Dancing to date have resulted in high quality ideas and high quality work that has had a profound and exciting impact on audiences. He is particularly interested in developing contexts for the representation and presentation of these new forms and the exciting participatory possibilities for audiences. He is intrigued by the architectural and social implications of Digital Dancing and the possibilities it offers for representing choreographic ideas and forms in specific and surprising locations. For Braun the process of Digital Dancing may in itself be a narrative but ultimately the end of that narrative is the public presentation. He feels that we must effectively respond to questions as to what artists need to develop to work up to the point of presentation - asking what kind of support is needed for the process and genesis of the work, what kinds of environments are needed to sustain and present it and what kind of languages and tools do we need to develop cultural and critical frameworks?

Braun is an enthusiast and an activist - valuable commodities in these times. He is a man who likes to think of culture as an ecosystem; a subtle and delicate balance between practices, forms and ideas. It is heartening to know that his enthusiasm and activism are reserved as much for dance as new technologies - he is not throwing the baby out with the virtual bath water and believes that one can only digitise to a point. For him dance is "physicality in a quintessential way" and the capacity to digitise it without betraying its essence offers him an interesting tension and his biggest challenge yet.

Lois Keidan, Co-Director, Live Act Development Agency, London. She also works with Catherine Ugwu, as consultants, promoters and curators for British and international performance and time based work; and was Director of Live Arts at the ICA until 1997. Contact +44 (0)20 7247 3339 or email lois@keidan.demon.co.uk

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001