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Silicon ballet: will technology affect the future of dance?

National Youth Dance Company in Tarantiseismic at Maison de la Danse. Photo: Tony Nandi

Three European creative organisations – Theatre de Liege in Belgium, Sadler’s Wells in the UK and Maison de la Danse in France – will be part of a collaborative event to examine the technological innovations that could help shape the future of the dance art form. Eleanor Turney finds out more

As part of Lyon Dance Biennale [1], three European institutions – Theatre de Liege in Belgium, Sadler’s Wells [2] in the UK and Maison de la Danse [3] in France – will co-host an event in September billed as a “hackathon for dance”. A hackathon being when various technologically minded people come together for a short intense period of time to collaborate on software or other tech projects.

The Dansathon borrows this idea, bringing together interdisciplinary teams working in dance, technology, design and communication. Running for 72 hours, the programme will combine their skills and ideas to explore new territories for the creation of dance and for audience development.

Maxime Fleuriot, conseiller artistique (artistic adviser) at Maison de la Danse in Lyon, which presents the Biennale, explains how the project started: “Two years ago, we initiated in Lyon and Paris a sort of symposium on the issue of dance and new technologies. We had the same wish as BNP Paribas [the project’s funder] to explore this issue, and we wanted to have a kind of dance hackathon.”

How to Proceed at Theatre de Liege. Photo: Bart Greitens [4]
How to Proceed at Theatre de Liege. Photo: Bart Greitens

The BNP Paribas Foundation for Culture [5] supports arts and culture projects across the world, mostly focused in Europe. It has been supporting Maison de la Danse for a remarkable 33 years.

Majorie Carre, who runs the performing arts programme at BNP Paribas, tells me: “We of course ask ourselves questions about how to innovate, how to collaborate, how to develop new approaches to creation, something that creates something different, and the approach of hackathons seems to us very appropriate. We work with artists and organisations in a long-term way to support the development of artists and ideas – we don’t support projects on a short-term basis, but rather the path and trajectory of an artist. For example, we’ve recently started supporting Hofesh Shechter [6] [and] we’ve been supporting Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui [7] for six years.

“We’ve been looking to support innovation in dance – new fields, new approaches etc – and we’re interested in what happens at the crossroads of dance and new technologies, and how technology might interfere with dance creation to produce something different. We’ve started supporting artists who look in this direction.”

Fleuriot continues: “Maison de la Danse is really developing its attention on digital art and dance. We have an international video dance platform, with about 500,000 viewers every year, so that’s the trigger point for the project. We suggested inviting Theatre de Liege to join us as a partner. We are very close to Sadler’s Wells, as well, and we admire what they do. We were very pleased that they joined the initiative.”


5 dance events in 2018 that you need to know about

1. World-renowned Akram Khan is at Sadler’s Wells in May/June with his last performances as a dancer in a full-length piece [8].

2. Rambert [9] is performing at Bergen International Festival in Norway in June, before heading to Edinburgh in November.

3. Northern Ballet [10] presents Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre in April-June. The ballet was nominated for the South Bank Sky Arts Dance Award 2017.

4. The Place [11] is collaborating with the Korean Cultural Centre in London to host a festival featuring performances by five Korean dance companies in May.

5. Motionhouse Dance is on a epic tour in 2018, including Canterbury; Nottingham; Neuwied, Germany; Portsmouth; Leuven, Belgium; Bregenzer Fruhling Festival, Austria; Manchester; Aachen, Germany; Kaiserslautern, Germany; Pforzheim, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; Hull. 

The tagline for the Dansathon is “imagine the future of dance”, but what does that mean to Jonathan Thonon from Theatre de Liege?

“The future of dance is not only that technology takes the power on stage, but also how it can help choreographers and dancers themselves to develop their skills, and to develop new aesthetics.” he says.

“It’s also the question of the audience; the audience in the theatre has always been in the same position, and we see no theatremakers or choreographers who try to get out of this system of having the audience in front of the stage. Technology can help us, perhaps to find a new way to address the audience.”

Fleuriot agrees: “When we say ‘imagine the future of dance’, it’s about dance, new technology and audience development. It’s not just about new technology helping new dance creation – though it could be that – it’s also a matter of how we can develop the audience for dance with the use of new technologies. For instance, there are a lot of people watching dance on the internet – some videos have 100,000 people, even a million views. What do we do with these audience figures, besides say ‘wow’?

“As institutions, where we are very engaged in developing audiences and targeting young audiences, we need to take this into consideration; can we tap into this viral video world? Can we make people who like viral videos come to the theatre? So that might be the future of dance. That’s one answer.

“It could be, how can we use AI [artificial intelligence] and VR [virtual reality] that are going to change all futures, and the present. Look at smartphones, we are Skyping right now… we have to live with these technologies. It’s changing our experiences as citizens and as artists.

“I think dance is a good way to observe this, because it’s something you can do without anything – you can dance naked, you just need your body. It’s a way of seeing what happens to your body as a simple human being, and when your human experience is changed by all of this new technology, dance is a way to observe that, think about that, to challenge that and to have a point of view on that.”

Dystopian Dream by Nitin Sawhney at Sadler’s Wells. Photo: Johan Persson [12]
Dystopian Dream by Nitin Sawhney at Sadler’s Wells. Photo: Johan Persson

Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, explains that they are also thinking a lot about how technology might influence the world of dance. “It’s about understanding what impact digital culture will have on the art form,” he says.

“How can we, as an art form, use the tools of the digital age to create better understanding between people? In other words, to use the tools for themselves, but also to use our qualities of bringing communities together through the use of digital tools. Whether it’s to do with digital or not, there’s a high prevalence of loneliness and isolation, and we want to see whether the combination of our art form and digital tools can help to bring people together.”

Carre emphasises the importance of bringing people together, too, especially with Brexit looming: “At BNP Paribas, we are European – that’s our approach. We have cultural links with Sadler’s Wells and with England, and in the short term there’s no question about that. From a cultural point of view, we see our work as a vector for dialogue and cooperation at a European level. Brexit or no Brexit, England is part of Europe.


Other programmes supported by BNP Paribas

1. Theatre des Amandiers in Nantes is one of France’s leading national theatres. Its productions tour extensively in France and around the world. It receives 15,000 a year from BNP Paribas, split with Maison de la Musique de Nanterre.

2. La Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium, is an opera house with an international reputation for producing opera, dance, concerts and recitals.

3. Dublin Dance Festival has been supported by BNP Paribas in the past.

4. Flagey cultural centre in Brussels hosts a wide-ranging music programme, plus films and other culture events.

5. Le Theatre du Nouveau Monde in Montreal –BNP Paribas sponsored productions in 2010, 2012 and 2014, including Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage.

“Dialogue is the basis for living together, and dance is a very useful tool for that because it’s a universal language. We can speak with our bodies and our movements. We really see dance as our contribution to well-being at a European level, to invest in dance for its capacity to bring people together.”

Thonon says: “The UK is one of the biggest cultural influences in Europe, and has some of the biggest artists. Brexit cannot change that.

“We need to build these networks because in the performing arts it’s becoming more and more difficult to work on your own. You need co-producers, more space for residencies and more money. It’s impossible to work alone and it makes sense from a European point of view.”

For Spalding, these connections remain hugely important: “As subsidy is declining, we need to work together in order to make the best out of joint ventures, rather than individual ventures. It’s happening in London and the UK, that people are working more closely together. Whatever is going to happen with Brexit, that’s something that needs to happen anyway around the world. On top of that, it leads to better understanding between nations and cultures.”

This is how Fleuriot feels, too: “We are very concerned with keeping a European dimension, because we are a European institution and the scope of our work is international. Europe is threatened at the moment, and we have a responsibility as a French institution to keep bridges and collaborations; it’s important for artists, it’s important for audiences, and it’s important for citizens.”

Lyon international Dance Biennale takes place from September 28-30. BNP Paribas Foundation [13]; sadlerswells.com [14]

Breaking down barriers to the language of dance

Acosta Danza. Photo: Yuris Norido [15]
Acosta Danza. Photo: Yuris Norido

Nick Awde gives a taster of what’s in store forthis year’s International Dance Day, with the gala event featuring five of Cuba’s top companies

April 29 is International Dance Day, celebrated worldwide since 1982. The event was created by the Dance Committee of the International Theatre Institute to land each year on the birthday of Jean-Georges Noverre, the 18th-century French dance master who gave ballet the shape we know today.

The focal event on this year’s 29th is the Dance Committee’s gala event, evocatively hosted in Cuba at Havana’s Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. It’s an enviable opportunity to catch five of Cuba’s top companies on the same bill: Acosta Danza, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba, Folklorico Nacional de Cuba and Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

Also appearing at the event are the Dance Committee’s international message authors – each year a message from a choreographer or dancer of influence gets circulated worldwide. The list of past contributors is appropriately wide-ranging, with alumni featuring the likes of Trisha Brown, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Mats Ek, Kazuo Ohno and Merce Cunningham.

International Dance Day 2017: Celebrating Trisha Brown [16]

This year sees messages emanating from a five-way breakdown of the world’s regions: Burkina Faso’s Salia Sanou (Africa), Lebanon’s Georgette Gebara (Arab Nations), Hong Kong’s Willy Tsao (Asia Pacific), Ohad Naharin (Europe), and Cuba’s Marianela Boan (the Americas). Tonally, messages tend to range from the whimsical and personal to hard-hitting and political, and this year is no exception.

Gebara, founder of Beirut’s Ecole Libanaise de Ballet, recalls taking a group of Lebanese students to see a show by the Martha Graham Company in Jordan as the war back home in Lebanon raged. Meanwhile Sanou, artistic director of Ouagadougou’s Dialogues de Corps festival and La Termitiere centre, which opened in 2006, acknowledges his cross-border inspiration and sees it being “tested in my double belonging to Africa and Europe”.

Based in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where she heads the National Company of Contemporary Dance of the Ministry of Culture, Boan takes up both concepts: “To each displaced person, refugee and exile from around the world, I say: you have a country that goes with you that nothing and no one can take away – the country of your body.”

As artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company, Naharin opts for direct action, urging: “We need to resist the conservative and conventional thinking that has roots in much of dance education and training, and let go of old ideas for new, better ones.”

Meanwhile Tsao, founder and artistic director of City Contemporary Dance Company and Beijing Dance, pitches in with a candid snapshot of China’s gradual opening up to international ideas, concluding: “With a growing connection with international communities and stronger mutual contemporary dance exchanges, I am confident that China will accelerate to become a significant force for advocating individual viewpoints, championing innovative changes, and fostering tolerance and understanding among nations in this troubled world.”

As part of the UNESCO-created International Theatre Institute, the International Dance Committee (iti-worldwide.org/dancecommittee.html) holds the remit of developing the study and practice of dance through activities such as patronage of festivals and workshops for young professionals.

International Dance Day messages [17]