Synchronous Objects: What Else Might Dance Look Like?: An Interview with Professor Norah Zuniga-Shaw

By James Graham


Back in college, while in one of my countless rehearsals I remember thinking, “I wonder what areas of the stage we use the most?” Little did I know that this kernel would materialize in a variety of permutations through a project known today as Synchronous Objects ( Focusing on William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced (2000), a team of 30 graduate student and faculty contributors from The Ohio State University, embarked on creating an interactive website that explored the systems and ways of viewing, understanding, and reading this dance.

Norah Zuniga-Shaw is a tenured Professor at Ohio State and has been the director for dance and technology since 2004. She is also a main creator/collaborator for this project. I wanted to interview Zuniga-Shaw because Synchronous Objects is a canonical work that ties together important figures of our field with similar contemporaries from varying disciplines including design, dance, statistics, architecture, engineering, geography, and philosophy; this project situates and validates dance in unique ways. What happens if we collaborate with individuals from these respective fields and found commonalities?

James Graham: Can you give me a brief description of your background?

Norah Zuniga-Shaw: Sure–I was raised up in dancing and writing by hippie artist parents in Boulder, Colorado, so almost from the beginning of my memory I’ve had a sense of creative freedom and I think this is evident in Synchronous Objects. I got my undergraduate education at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass, another place where no one even blinked an eye at my self-designed major in dance and environmental science.

I moved to San Francisco with a job in environmental science but kept dancing and taking class (I signed in students at LINES in exchange for classes, produced my own work at Brady Street Dance Centre, took anything I could with Sara Shelton Mann and anyone associated with the then-defunct Contraband and was one of many disciples of Augusta Moore and Kathleen Hermesdorf’s classes). I saw my first dance film at the San Francisco Film Festival, a beautiful piece called Queens for a Day that made me want to go back to school and hence the move to Los Angeles for the MFA program at UCLA.

JG: How has dance been instrumental in your life? Technology? Dance and technology?–leading you to the synthesis of Synchronous Objects.

NZS: My first classes were improvisation and my choreographic sensibility was cultivated from very early on. So choreography is my earliest and deepest form of knowledge. I think it is my dance training that taught me how to really listen, to act with intention, and to see the possibilities for connection in virtually any situation.

I think dancers are very often afraid of technology just for lack of exposure and the same goes for analytical and scientific thinking. But in fact dancers are some of the most rigorous thinkers I know, and use analytical thinking all the time, we just are not used to calling it that. So in some way, you can see my history in the creation of Synchronous Objects, it is dance and science and media technologies and collaboration, connections between things, and a deep valuing of choreographic thinking.

JG: Were there main distinctions and/or categories you decided to focus on?

NZS: After many years of research and discussion with Forsythe and the Company, the systems of organization in the dance were distilled into three intersecting categories–Movement Material, Cueing, and Alignments. All three of these systems together combine to create the tapestry of visual counterpoint that is One Flat Thing, reproduced. We define counterpoint in this dance as “a field of action in which the irregular and intermittent coincidence of attributes produces an ordered interplay.”

JG: Once you decided on One Flat Thing, reproduced , how did you initially embark upon the journey?

NZS: We treated the dance in much the same way [an environmental scientist] might encounter an estuary where the salty water mixes with the fresh and the slightest imbalance or lack of attention can have ripple effects through the entire system. The focus of the researcher brings acute attention to the dance as a phenomenon while simultaneously holding a broad focus to the patterns of connection rippling over its surface. This too can be a form of attention one brings to the audience experience. If upon entering the theater one encounters a dance as if encountering a new culture or a cherished landscape, what patterns, details and discoveries will surface? And then the next step is to imagine how those discoveries may be shared?

JG: What is an experience someone may have interacting with the website? How can a user understand the question “what else might this dance look like?”

NZS: The Generative Drawing Tool begins to answer the question. The algorithms for the moving brushes allow them to be directed by the data but also to move based on a broader set of action choices. In this way, like the dancers, they could perhaps be seen to be doing both choreographed movement and structured improvisation. And both objects might inspire new scholarly and creative activity and invite audiences into a closer more attentive readership of choreographic form.

JG: Can you describe your role and the project goals of Synchronous Objects? What were the initial thoughts?

NZS: I’m one of the creative directors. Bill Forsythe was the catalyst. Forsythe and I, and my creative partner at ACCAD [Advanced Computing Center for Art and Design], Maria Palazzi, began collaborating in 2005 and Synchronous Objects grew out of several conversations we had about contemporary choreography and the possibilities for communicating choreographic thinking. Forsythe also wanted to develop something that would invite dance out of the isolation we sometimes experience and invite knowledge domains into understanding what it is we do, what we know as choreographers. So it was initiated by his interests and the things he wanted to share about the dance. From the beginning we determined that this was not a preservation project, not for repertory or reconstruction. This really freed us up to imagine, as Bill says, what else might this dance look like? What possibilities emerge when you delve deeply into choreographic structure, visualize it through time-based media, and then re-purpose those structures to create new things? Or said another way, “how else might the ideas contained within a dance be better understood and taken up by other knowledge domains and contemporary society?” If you’re interested in these things check out what Emio Greco is doing and Siobhan Davies, Bebe Miller, Steve Paxton…and stay in touch with the Motion Bank project. They all have info online.

JG: Is this project a detour from Forsythe’s usual creative work?

NZS: Synchronous Objects stands within the broader context of Forsythe’s works for the stage, multimedia publishing, and sculptural installations in museum and public settings. Together these creations tell a story of the radical mobility of moving ideas wherein all movement phenomena can be considered choreographically, and principles typically expressed through dancers on a stage are manifested instead in physical objects and interactive media.

JG: Could you explain the idea of “choreographic objects”?–this phrase sounds new to many people and is frequently used on the website and in the discourse of Synchronous Objects.

NZS: Choreographic objects are enactments of choreographic ideas in forms other than dance on a stage. But they are never about abandoning live performance. The idea is not to either have live performance or have choreographic objects. Just as in the translation of a poem from German to English one does not assume that the German original will be abandoned, but that the translation will enable new forms of engagement with the work. The point here then is to assert the value of live performance and the kinesthetic communication that is dance by also asserting the possibility of a multiplicity of other manifestations of choreographic thinking. As Forsythe says in his essay on the subject, “a choreographic object is not a substitute for the body, but rather an alternative site for the understanding of potential instigation and organization of action to reside. Ideally, choreographic ideas in this form would draw an attentive, diverse readership that would eventually understand and, hopefully, champion the innumerable manifestations, old and new, of choreographic thinking.” Choreographic objects are, in part, translations of the instigations, instructions, and methods of organization that choreographers use to create action. They create additional modes of communication and exchange.

JG: What I love about the various objects on the site is their strength to appeal to an array of learning styles. Just as we see in pedagogical studies that we all learn in unique ways. What does not jive for one participant will inevitably be a moment of clarity and insight for the next.

Is it more important for dancers to see this site? Or non-dancers? Was that even a distinction in your planning process and implementation of the site?

NZS: We talked a lot about audience and made the work for both specialists and non-specialists alike. There are multiple points of entry into the work and the more time you spend with it there are layers of information and discovery available depending on your interests. Since our launch in 2009 at the Wexner Center for the Arts more than 30,000 people from 90 countries have accessed the site and many of them come back multiple times. I have also been touring and presenting on the work extensively (although mostly in Europe and Asia) and find I get invitations from dance and media arts festivals and institutions of course but also from groups working on the philosophy, theory, practice-based research, contemporary concerns in archiving, animation, scientific visualization, contemporary dance reconstruction, humanities festivals, interdisciplinary conferences on scoring practices and on and on.

JG: How has Synchronous Objects provided “dance literacy”? How can people learn to “read” or “see” dance through this site?

NZS: The objects are re-articulations of the dance via the data and our own research/artistic interests. They are both creative and analytical. Some help reveal patterns and allow the eye [of the audience] to see or ‘read’ the dance differently, others use the patterns and ideas in the dance to generate new animated forms.

JG: After having the site on-line for just over two years, What have you learned?

NZS: Since the publication of Synchronous Objects in 2009 this, the story of counterpoint, has surfaced as one of the most important aspects of the work. We speak about it, we demonstrate it in the dance and our visualization objects, we teach it in workshops using dance improvisation and the interactive tools on the site, and we continue to explore it in our interdisciplinary working methods, in other dances, and in other aspects of our lives. In closing, I’d like to suggest that our objects are perhaps most of all manifestations of the exuberant exchange of ideas we experienced in their creation. Our creative process moved in a constant dilation between independent and collective intelligence, between the known and the unknown, chaos and order, focus and an always shifting network attention. In short, our process was is in itself a form of counterpoint.

Visit, to experience the project for yourself.

Some of Zuniga-Shaw’s responses have been taken from her article: Zuniga Shaw, Norah. Objets synchrones, objets chorégraphique, et traduction des idées continues dans le danse. Synchronous Objects, Choreographic Objects, and the Translation of Dancing Ideas. Florence Corin, Baptiste Andrien, Editors. De l’un a l’autre: composer, apprendre et partarger en mouvements. Brussels: Contredanse, 2010.

Forsythe, William. “Choreographic Objects.” (March 30, 2011).

This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of In Dance.

James Graham is a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and writer. He was chosen by Ohad Naharin to be a certified Gaga teacher and to take part in his pilot training program of international dancers/ teachers. He currently teaches Gaga at SF Conservatory of Dance, Shawl-Anderson and LINES Ballet and around the country. He holds degrees from The Ohio State University (M.F.A.) and UC Berkeley (B.A.).