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Cognitive scientists seek to quantify body movement

At UC San Diego, a dance troupe teams with researchers who follow their every move.

March 08, 2009|Anne Marie Welsh

SAN DIEGO — With a dozen high-def cameras and a couple of camcorders, plus pens, notebooks, sketch pads and laptops, more than 40 people spent three recent weeks in a black-box theater on the campus of UC San Diego documenting what was occurring there.

The object of their study was notoriously elusive: dance and the process of choreographic creation.

What happens, they wondered, when choreographer Wayne McGregor creates movement on (through? with?) the protean, hyper-articulated bodies of his Random Dance Company? How do the dancers visualize his cues? How do they respond to one another in the group dynamic? How do they remember? And how does he?

By the end of every day during those three weeks, each person in the theater had interviewed or been interviewed by others participating in a meticulously crafted experiment exploring the nature -- and role -- of cognition in creating dance.

Three years in the making, the experiment was initiated by Martin Wollesen, director of UCSD's ArtPower! presenting organization; carried forward by professor David Kirsh, director of the university's interactive cognition lab; and heartily supported by McGregor, Britain's leading contemporary choreographer.

"I feel like I'm in therapy 2 1/2 hours a day," the choreographer said before one early evening debriefing with Kirsh. "David's questions make you define terms, help you not to be woolly about the words you use. We're talking intimately about what I'm doing, about the body as a thinking body, about how it processes information and visualizes movement."

McGregor, also the Royal Ballet's resident choreographer and a much-sought-after opera director, created portions of his next piece, "Dyad 1909," while in San Diego with his company and support staff as ArtPower!'s first innovator-in-residence.

The residency kicked off with a performance by Random Dance of "Entity," a startling, virtuosic 2008 work, itself part of McGregor's ongoing inquiry into the relationship between the thinking mind and the moving body. The weeks of intensive investigation and creation were also part of a course taught by Kirsh, centered on creative and "distributed" -- meaning "group" -- cognition.

The investigation was designed to result, said Kirsh, "in a singular document of the process that will be available to others and analyzed for years to come."


Make a note of it

Like American dance innovator Merce Cunningham, McGregor has long been interested in what jump-starts his creative process. His company name, Random Dance, implies Cunningham's belief that random numbers can be as useful as logic, that chance and indeterminacy are core artistic tools.

McGregor said he'd "been fascinated with disruptions, diversions, randomness, incompleteness, the different set of intelligences involved in dance and the different ways of extracting information with the body."

At UCSD, he said, he became more aware of "what I'm giving attention to." He wanted to "understand how we're thinking about ideas, to extend and develop my cognitive capacity about the body" in hopes of developing new methods that would cut against any "formula motifs" or habitual ways of making.

One way to improve or change his choreographic techniques, he said, might "involve building images acoustically rather than visually." A week into the experiment, he had discovered that "the things we're taught to talk about in dance don't actually describe what's happening in the mind. I want to blast that vocabulary open."

The dancers, his "best group by far," were eager participants -- not passive guinea pigs but note-taking thinkers. Citing "their extraordinary techniques and capacity to do so much mentally," McGregor said he'd chosen the international troupe of seven men and four women for "their serpentine physicality" and "mental aptitude. They're all curious and open-minded."

Their daily activities created a continuous feedback loop. First thing in the morning, Kirsh interviewed the choreographer in general terms while the dancers warmed up during company class. (Dancers rotated teaching duties, but the class was always ballet, followed for some by rigorous sets of abdominal crunches.)

At 10:30, Kirsh's students, each assigned a dancer, filed in with their laptops and notebooks. Cameras were activated, a documentary filmmaker and the Random Dance research coordinator took their places, and McGregor set his dancers to work on a task, a riff, an idea, a rhythmic challenge.

Students' fingers flew across keyboards as they described gestures, moves, attitudes, dancer responses and adaptations that provoked questions they would ask later in the day about why and how. Some used a coding system developed by a graduate assistant. Others sketched.

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