Artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) since 1999, Garry Stewart has long been a leader in using technology in dance.
Stewart studied video at the University of New South Wales and in New York on an Australia Council fellowship, where he made dance videos and CD ROMs. His ever-inventive mind has continued to produce thought-provoking works which achieve worldwide success. Multiverse (2014) began as an exploration of string theory – the idea that minute strands of energy vibrating in eleven dimensions are responsible for creating every force and particle in the universe. As well, string theory suggests there could be other universes, hence the title.
The ambitious 3D work Multiverse premiered in Adelaide and toured to several venues in Europe in 2015. It was conceived and developed when Stewart was Thinker in Residence at Deakin University. He consulted with Peter Bouwknegt, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Australian National University, and Andrew Melatos, Physics Professor at Melbourne University, who, Stewart says, “helped guide us through the tricky terrain of String Theory and other aspects of cosmology”.
Programming of graphics was done by five gaming animators at Deakin’s Motion.Lab, which brings together movement, performance, data and creativity and so is a nexus for dance and new technologies.
So what does Stewart mean by ‘technology’s relation to dance’?
“That’s an interesting question,” he says. “I guess it’s the manipulation of new materials to create something more sophisticated.
“It has some kind of transformative function. You could say a bowerbird building its nest is a form of technology … if you look at the development of axeheads in early man and how that helped create society … and then shifting into the iron age and the bronze age and how that transformed cultures.
“My relationship with technology is not so much a fetishisation of technology itself – you can get caught up with that fetishism of technical advances. There’s a fascination with it, a demand for it, a curiosity; and it’s become commodified, and you have to be careful of that. It has to come out of passion, an artistic vision, not just because there’s an audience for it.
“It’s a bit tricky, really. For instance, when I made Devolution I’d been introduced to [Frenchman] Louis-Philippe Demers’ robotics, and I thought he’d be really interesting to collaborate with, but I waited until I had the right idea. It wasn’t something I rushed into.”
Devolution, which premiered at the 2006 Adelaide Festival, put dancers together on stage with large and medium-scale robots, exploring the anthropomorphic potential of placing humans and machines in confluence and conflict. The dancers were clad in scaly insect-like costumes, and appeared to grow bony, glassy and metallic prosthetic limbs.
While he has used video extensively, Stewart says it is so much a part of dance performance now that one scarcely thinks of it as technology. But in Proximity (2012), a collaboration with another Frenchman, Thomas Pachoud, the dancers videoed one another. Stewart had been reading articles on neuroscience and was interested in ‘the gaze’ and how we perceive one another. So the audience saw images of the dancers behind them as they moved.
“The other important thing,” he says, “is why we use technology in dance. Is it just a sensory experience for the audience, or can it be used as a representational metaphor for some idea?”
From this work came Proximity Interactive, an interactive installation piece now being trialed to help people recover from stroke and other medical conditions. It has been used successfully at Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre.
But using sophisticated technologies in dance is expensive and constraining, with the great difficulty of incorporating any choreographic changes once the technology is set. Then there is the kind of technology that’s hidden, that’s ubiquitous – lighting triggered by movement, for instance. Again, there is the collaboration between dance and digital mapping techniques, seen in Gideon Obarzanek’s Glow (2006) and Mortal Engine (2008), and most spectacularly in Pixel, a recent work created by French choreographer Mourad Merzouki and digital designers Adrien Mondot and Claire Bardainne of Adrien M/Claire B; worth googling.
For now, Stewart is concentrating his attention on his current project, the four parts of his Nature series, which began with Habitus for the 2016 Adelaide Festival and continued with The Beginning of Nature two weeks later at WOMADelaide. Then there will be a collaboration with a Norwegian choreographer for a two-part work, one on the Arctic and the other on Mawson’s expeditions in Antarctica. Possibilities for using technology would seem boundless.
ADT’s current work Doppleganger is showing as part of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s exhibition Versus Rodin: bodies in space and time, which continues until Saturday, June 17
Header image: Multiverse
Photography: Chris Herzfeld