Dampening the Recoil

I went to a talk at ITU today by the choreographer and one of the technical guys of the Copenhagen-based dance company Recoil. It was particularly interesting to me because I don’t, by and large, “get” contemporary dance in the slightest. It generally looks unintelligible and unmoving and thus I either feel vaguely threatened by its artiness, or simply impassive. The talk by Recoil, and particularly their presentation of various videos, made me enjoy dance a little more, or at least feel like I might like their work.

The immediate thing I was able to grasp, and possibly always grasp, were static moments within the dancing they shower. Particularly memorable were two women sitting on the floor, clasping their knees in order to hold their feet off the ground. I found this image, and perhaps also the slight quivering of their feet under the tension, to be very striking. When they started moving, though, I was swiftly lost again.

However, the choreographer said some interesting things about her objectives with dance. Specifically that, like music, it was a matter of refrains and rhythms, importantly of repetition. She said that she thinks of a piece in terms of it having a dramatic arc. Central to this was the idea that a particular movement, familiar from earlier in the piece, would be recontextualised at the end of the piece by what had been seen, and thus would have new – and presumable dramatic – meaning. I like this in principle, but in “standard” dance, I suspect I’m simply unable to perceive this recontextualising move – a failing of mine rather than dance’s, obviously.

And this is where the digital aspect of their work comes in. Their performances seem to generally involve a “projected space” which the dancers move in – a literal projection on the floor (or sometimes on a screen). And they further use relatively simple technologies to make the project reactive to what the performers do – say, a line that follows a dancers, or a digital shadow that forms beneath them.  These digital components of the choreography, then, do some of this same contextualising work as repetition and refrains might – it gives an extra way to glean some meaning from the motion. Thus, the work stops being “a dancer writhing around on the floor” (my perception), and becomes a dancer who, as they move, leaves imprints on the ground behind them like the chalk tracings of a corpse, creating several of them before coming to a stop. That, unlike the movement itself, or, at least, with the movement, felt far more interesting.

Further, and perhaps even better, were the moments in which the movements and the physical presence of the dancers seemed to recontextualise the projected images themselves, in a nice reversal. Thus, in one piece they showed, two dancers are represented on the floor beneath them as the familiar “pong paddles”, hitting a ball back and forth as they move from side to side on the stage. Perhaps this is a touch geeky, but it makes me think of Tron in some ways – this idea of seeing “into the pixels” and finding an emotional world. The breathing of the dancers and the sounds of their movement transformed the incredibly passive and neutral representations of Pong into something affective.

Perhaps a caveat to the use of technology by the group is that, at least to my eyes, the images created by the dancers – silhouettes, lines, erasures – were often more poignant and moving than the movement itself. The “Tron moment” above is an exception to this, but I often felt more drawn to the virtual images being drawn by the dance than the dance.

Still, Recoil does seem to be doing something quite excellent in their combination of dancing and the digital, and I find that I like it a lot. If they can draw me into thinking positively of contemporary dance and even being engaged by it, they’re achieving special.

14 April 2010
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