Synchronous Objects: Visualizing Choreographic Structure

Chad Gilman



Background and Need

Dance is defined as “the movement of the body in a rhythmic way, usually to music and within a given space, for the purpose of expressing an idea or emotion, releasing energy, or simply taking delight in the movement itself.” (Mackrell 2011) As humans have evolved dance has always been at the cultural center, growing from primal expression into a complicated art. As an art, however, dance has always been our most ephemeral and it is safe to say that for every dance remembered and passed down, millions have been performed and forgotten.

As dance has evolved, it’s aesthetic complexity, ambition, and scope has grown. In order for this to happen, it had to create ways of countering its ephemeral nature, making it necessary for a system to record the steps, teach the moves, and coordinate the dance. Vocabularies were created, instruction was formalized, methods perfected, and the choreographer was born.

Yet even as a formal system of choreography came to be, dance has still struggled with ways to record itself in a meaningful way that could demonstrate definitively the thoughts, process, construct, and art behind a performance. William Forsythe (2011), one of modern dance’s most esteemed choreographers, elucidates on the problem:

the choreographic idea traditionally materializes in a chain of bodily action with the moments of its performance being the first, last and only instances of a particular interpretation. The idea's enactment is other means. As poignant as the ephemerality of the act might be, its transient nature does not allow for sustained examination or even the possibility of objective, distinct readings from the position that language offers the sciences and other branches of arts that leave up synchronic artifacts for detailed inspection.”

Many attempts have been made to record dance in a meaningful, insightful way. However most of these attempts have only recorded the steps and traditions behind the dance. They have been more like stenography rather than an object that would allow for Forsythe’s “sustained examination”. In India, a sacred book called the Natya-sastra recorded the rules for depicting different emotions through dance. During the Renaissance simple verbal abbreviations for steps were developed along with complex floor patterns. To document these, Raoul-Auger Feuillet wrote Choreographie, ou l’art de décrire la danse (“Choreography, or the Art of Describing the Dance”). In the 19th century, some ballet masters created a form of notation using stick figures. In the 20th century Joan and Rudolf Benesh created Choreology, a system written on a five-line stave recording the dancer’s position from behind, while Noa Eshkol and Abraham Wachmann developed a mathematical system of coordinates. (Mackrell 2011) These developments along with film and video recording were all noble efforts to record the essence of dance, yet they all seemed to come up short as far as “sustained examination” is concerned.

Applying Technology to Dance in “One Flat Thing”

In 2005 William Forsythe began collaborating with Norah Zuniga Shaw, the director of Ohio State’s Dance and Technology program and Maria Palazzi, the director of the Advanced Computing Center at Ohio State. Over the next three years they analyzed the choreographic structure of Forsythe’s work “One Flat Thing” and developed three systems to identify counterpoint. Counterpoint is defined by Forsythe as movement motifs, cues and alignment, or moments of synchronization. (Sulcas 2009) This analysis led the team to create 20 visualizations of “One Flat Thing” they called “Synchronous Objects”. Today, all of the “Synchronous Objects” are assembled on a website (http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/content.html#) where anyone can use them to explore the choreographic structure behind the dance.

The Synchronous Objects

On the website it stated motto is “visualizing choreographic structure from dance to data to objects”. When examining the 20 “objects” it is easy to see the research and thought that went into the project. After clicking on each object there are three tabs that help explain its purpose: object explanation, process catalog, and related objects. Many of the objects also contain an explanatory video where a member of the research team demonstrates how the object was created and what data can be derived from it. Some of the objects are interactive, allowing visitors to manipulate the tools to examine the piece, while others are more static, and simply meant for viewers to absorb as another way of viewing the dance.

One of the most intriguing “objects” is the Generative Drawing Tool. This allows a user to create drawings based on data the dance has produced. By manipulating a series of sliders connected to the “brushes” (dancers) you can generate dynamic compositions all related to the original choreography.

Another “object” that can help a person understand the intricacies of the dance (and all dance) is the Counterpoint Tool. This tool lets a user generate their own dance and view how elements of counterpoint are created and revealed. Forsythe explains on the website that counterpoint is “a field of action in which the coincidence of attributes of an organization’s properties produces an ordered interplay”. With the Counterpoint Tool, these coincidences can be easily seen as the user manipulates the relative unison or difference of the “dancers” concerning elements such as speed, motion, and shape. At moments of counterpoint colorful lines are illuminated to trace the occurrence.

A final object to mention is “Difference Marks”. This is an overhead display of the dance in compressed time that traces any instance of motion in the dance space. As the dance progresses the screen is slowly filled with the tracings of every movement in the dance, revealing the intricate patterns and layers of the performance.

Learning from Synchronous Objects

The stated goal of the Synchronous Objects project is “to engage a broad public, explore cross-disciplinary research, and spur creative discovery for specialists and non-specialists alike”. It is hard to imagine this type of activity occurring a generation ago before the advent of video cameras, computers and advanced graphic interfaces. When most people watch dance they probably are not able to perceive the complexities in front of them with untrained eyes. While they may appreciate the work they can’t see the parts from the whole. Dancers and choreographers work hard to make the performance appear effortless, so being able to capture dance performances, and examine them from different angles, to slow down the work and re-contextualize it, does wonders for those seeking a deeper understanding of a work. Sulcas (2009) writes that for the Synchronous Objects team “the shift from direct reading of the dance’s structures to a more conceptual account, often seen through the prism of another discipline, is the site’s most important characteristic.” Furthering this point, Norah Zuniga Shaw (2009) states that One Flat Thing is a “choreographic resource” and “a phenomenon that can be interpreted more expansively in relation to contemporary concerns in architecture, information aesthetics, philosophy, computer science, and other fields.”

In applying technology to this resource, understanding expands and creativity is spurred. Last year Susan Melsop, a professor in the Industrial, Interior, and Visual Communications Department at The Ohio State University asked her interior design students to use the Synchronous Objects Website as a creative resource. Melsop (2011) explains: “We use Synchronous Objects to explore space making, movement, and spatial composition. Students report (this year and last) that the dance challenges them and can be difficult to comprehend at first. For them, the Sync/O site serves to unlock the legibility of the dance as subtleties are revealed and patterns made explicit.”

Beyond Synchronous Objects -- Motion Bank

As Synchronous Objects has been a great success, it is only the first step in creating technologically enriched choreographic information. The Forsythe Company recently launched Motion Bank, (The Forsythe Company 2011) which focuses on creating on-line digital scores of choreographer’s work. Synchronous Objects is viewed as the first of these efforts. Partnering with the Forsythe Company in these efforts are the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design at The Ohio State University, the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD, the Hochschule Darmstadt-University of applied sciences and the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) Offenbach. Currently, Motion Bank has three digital scores being developed by leading choreographers Deborah Hay, Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, and Bebe Miller. While the scores have not been made available to the public, but it can be anticipated that this type of application of technology to understanding dance will continue into the future. As Jonathan Burrows (2010) states, “a score…freezes time in a concrete form, allowing you to glimpse what can be hard to grasp perceptually in real-time”.

Works Cited

Mackrell, Judith R. "dance." Encyclopedia Britannica. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/150714/dance>.
Forsythe, William. "Choreographic Objects." Synchronous Objects. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/media/inside.php?p=essay>.
Sulcas, Rosalyn. "Drawing Movement's Connections." New York Times 29 Mar. 2009: 9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.
Shaw, Norah Zuniga. "Quotes from the Project Team." Synchronous Objects. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/media/inside.php?p=quotes>.
Melsop, Susan. "Sync Objects Creates Parallels Between Dance and Interior Design." Synchronous Objects. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/blog/2010/04/sync-objects- creates-parallels-between-dance-and-interior-design/>.
The Forsythe Company. Motion Bank. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <http://motionbank.org/en/>.
Burrows, Jonathan. "On scores - an extract from A Choreographer’s Handbook." Jonathan Burrows Info. N.p., 2010. Web. 23 Oct. 2011. <http://www.jonathanburrows.info/#/text/?id=56&t=content>