Making Video Make Sense

By Jessica Robinson Love


Around the Bay Area, an increasing number of choreographers are supplementing their dance with the use of live or recorded video. The video camera has evolved from a simple documentation tool into an active player in the creation of live art, and video projections have become de rigeur in many circles. But is all this technology necessarily a good thing? How can choreographers integrate video and live performance so that they support, rather than compete with, each other? Several local choreographers and video artists illuminate the possibilities and pitfalls of combining video with choreography.

Sheldon Smith and Lisa Wymore of Smith/Wymore Disappearing Acts are known in the Bay Area for their original and thought-provoking use of video in performance. In Unstable Atmospheres, a projected video of weather events is manipulated in response to Smith’s improvisation, casting the dancer as the master of the universe. This interweaving of movement and video invokes thorny questions about our relationships to global warming and world political events, all with a light touch and a little comedy. Smith cites the advent of affordable technology and a media-saturated culture as factors behind the rise of video in live dance performance. He says, “As we all hopefully become more mature in working with video, we can become less addicted to the spectacle of it and get down to the actual work of communicating experiences.” Smith advises choreographers to avoid thinking of video as a background, akin to music, but to instead create space for each element, orchestrating the eye of the audience through the landscape of the work.

Like Smith/Wymore, video artist and performer David Szalas uses video as a means to delve further into the conceptual underpinnings of his work. In Gadget, a recent piece about the first atomic bomb, Szlasa surrounds the audience with images of bomb tests which are manipulated live in response to the frantic and decaying performance of a solo dancer onstage. The effect is an incredibly chilling and powerful indictment on the destructive power of war. According to Szalasa, “I don’t create backdrops, I create environments. Environments don’t have to be photo-realistic, or literal, or even legible for the logical mind. If the video and live action are in dialogue, there will be no competition between the forms.”

In their upcoming piece, Holding back the night/ With its increasing brilliance/ The summer moon, at the Asian Art Museum (August 2, 2007), collaborators Sherwood Chen and Eric Koziol employ video to investigate the concept of presence. Chen had initially been resistant to using video because of his dedication to the presence of the live performer. But according to Koziol, “Video creates an extended vision of live dance. The audience can view the action from multiple perspectives such as extreme close-up, alternate locations, and from the dancers’ point of view. In this way the audience’s presence and awareness is expanded.” Chen has taken advantage of this unique capacity of video by creating a dance based on blinking eyelids. Chen elaborates, “Already challenging to follow in video, it would be impossible to offer effectively in live performance, yet the presence of video gives me permission to investigate small, intricate worlds.”

Choreographer paige starling sorvillo initially used video as a way to introduce a second character into a solo show. In her butoh version of Nabokov’s “Lolita,” sorvillo was able to portray both a young girl and an old man, creating a dialogue with the video image of her opposing character. In her upcoming work, 37 Isolated Events, sorvillo collaborates with media artist Lucy HG to create a responsive video environment for the live performers. According to sorvillo, “A lot of the physical images I present are pretty abstract. Video can frame things in a way that gives the audience more content than I can convey with bodies alone.” One arresting image from the new work involves the projection of the tiny body of sorvillo onto the moving hand of a performer, while in another scene, large projected hands stroke the curved backs of huddled dancers. This visual poetry elucidates complex themes while evoking a strongly visceral reaction from the audience.

Like sorvillo, choreographer Jessica Fudim uses video to help tell the story, amplifying the experiences of the character onstage. In a memorable scene from Sheepish, her Little Bo Peep character bounds through 20-foot tall video grass. The choreography is both delightfully playful and consummately precise, timed with the video to give the audience the uncanny impression that we are plunging headlong through a field with the fairytale-sized Fudim. According to Fudim, “The video process actually informs the content and performance of the work. Spending all those hours slogging through meadows shooting the video has become a reference point for me when I perform the piece.” Fudim suggests choreographers learn the tools of the trade themselves, whether it be experimenting with a cheap video camera or learning to use iMovie — this experience can help artists learn to communicate more effectively with video designers.

One of the local dance community’s more prominent video artists, Austin Forbord has collaborated with myriad local choreographers. Forbord sees video as an integral element to choreography. He succinctly states, “I think any dance is appropriate for video not unlike light is appropriate for dance. It helps to illuminate it.” He encourages artists to work with professional video specialists, just as they would with a lighting designer or composer.

While some artists view video as a crucial design element, others question its relevance in all situations. Erika Chong Shuch collaborated with video artist Ishan Vernallis and visual designer Sean Riley to create the video element for her recent production, Orbit: Notes from the Edge of Forever. In a piece which investigates the possibility of life in outer space, the live characters are portrayed on vintage televisions suspended from the ceiling in eerily swaying columns, appearing in a live feed that gradually morphs into a fantastical alien abduction. Not only does the video content serve to advance the story, but the televisions themselves become characters onstage. Despite this success, Shuch does not plan to use video in her next piece. “It’s too easy to be seduced by the idea that we need to have video in our work,” she says, “because everyone else is doing it. I think sometimes we forget to ask ourselves if it is essential to what it is that we are trying to communicate.”

At its best, video can introduce new characters into a piece, enrich our understanding of the dance, add an important conceptual framework, and even challenge our perceptions of ourselves. At its worst, video can be a distracting backdrop for choreography. Separating these two are an understanding of the power of the projected image, an intentional dialogue between the video and performers, adequate development and rehearsal time, and usually the work of an experienced video artist. Perhaps the best advice on using video is summed up by Szalasa, “Don’t be afraid to throw it out if it doesn’t get what you’re after.”

– Austin Forbord presents Corps de Co with Brittany Brown Ceres, July 28 at the WestWave Dance Festival,
– Sherwood Chen and Eric Koziol present their work August 2 at the Asian Art Museum,
– The Erika Shuch Performance Project presents 51802, at Intersection for the Arts, opening September 13,
– Jessica Fudim presents Please Feed My Animal, October 12-21 at Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory,
– paige starling sorvillo/blindsight presents 37 Isolated Events, in May, 2008 at CounterPULSE,

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of In Dance.

Jessica Robinson Love directs CounterPULSE, an organization that provides space and resources for emerging artists.