Of Arabesques & Algorithms with Nora Gibson

Nora Gibson

In this year of theater and venue shut down, the home screen has become the primary stage for dance performances. For better or worse, dance companies and dancer-choreographers are turning to film, video, and live-stream to stay connected to their audiences.  However earnest their efforts, the results run the gamut from well-crafted versions of live performances to Tik Tok clips and dance home movies.

Philadelphia-based choreographer Nora Gibson has previously used film elements in conjunction with live performance. Her virtual tech imagery appearing in pre-covid live performances of her company, Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet.

Gibson talked about her love for dance on film and her recent works.
In a Zoom interview last week, Gibson talked about her love for dance on film and her recent works. As much as Gibson admires conventional dance-film templates, “I’m doing work that might be considered outside the category of dance film, proper.”

Decoding (in)visible dance tech

Ballet algorithms at Gibson’s performance installation at the Maas Building

Gibson collects performance data from her dancers as they move by the use of special sensors. In this manner, she can examine their dancing figure, any sounds their body makes, and calculations of spatial patterns.

The digital analytics are transcribed into components of Gibson’s  ‘interactive movement data.’  These are converted into stage interactive visuals, which Gibson describes as ‘kinetic paintings.’ She has built these visuals into such recent ballets as ‘Mandala,’ ‘Human,’ and “Nothing That is Not There.”

Gibson doesn’t dance around the claim that would contend that “you’re just doing digital art.” She says it is a fair point, “but from a dancer’s perspective, it is simply about movement. They are not just digital graphics to me; they are kinetic paintings. I’m not dealing with the body, but I am dealing with form and composition. Gibson’s ballet choreography is distinctive in its neoclassicism. The visual and tech elements are high concept but never eclipse and dancers’ individual artistry.

These digitized sensorial data transferred to abstract imagery has the effect of a dancers’ energy field, symbolic aura, or life force.

Ballet metaphysics

It is vital according to Gibson that dazzling tech doesn’t detract from the dancers but enhances existing elements to expand the concepts of live performance. As the industry shutdown of live performances continues, many of her recent works have been filmed or conceived for online viewing. They offer something artistically intriguing in an online environment already saturated with dance videos and films.

“I haven’t really developed my skills as a dance-film person,” Gibson explained. “Other artists do it brilliantly in two dimensions (of the film) – I didn’t go in that direction. I didn’t want to make choreographic pieces and then reduce them to two dimensions. Once I allowed for that, I was able to focus on the concept of why is it that dance can’t be 3-dimensional?”

These techniques open up a new cinematic template of experimentation. “I have asked myself how is the medium technically appropriate for the type of art you are showing? Where does the art live? I have been doing work that might be considered outside the category of dance films.”

More questions continued to present. “Why is a lighting designer off in a booth? They are performing too. Technology can be the performance itself. I had presets from all of these programs, but within that the timing of transitions, I control the scenography of the performance.” 

Gibson’s concepts incorporate all of her knowledge and artistry about the specific grammar of dance on film, which circles such issues as filming dancers’ full bodies during a performance or selecting film techniques for close-ups, editing, film-speed, and camera angles.

Ballet Algorithms

As much as Gibson experiments with expanding film and tech components, the choreographer assures us that she “absolutely loves being in the theater with dancers and live audiences. I’m not proposing a better solution.  But, I can change the questions that I’m asking …(and trying to solve) and do things in this medium that I can’t do in the theater.”

A sensory device Gibson uses for meditation, for instance, can “expand the definition of movement. I can stream my brain waves and attach them to physical parameters. I can then have a visual representation of the abstract designs. At the Maas Building, I scanned myself performing different dance phrases and created canon-like structures with myself replicated several times – working with counterpoints and patterns.”

“I’ve certainly gone to another planet with my work,” Gibson intimates, adding, “I’m asking basic physics questions that I’ve been asking even as a choreographer. Why can’t dancers have different opacities? Why can’t I change my own scale.”

“In many concrete ways, I’ve been more active artistically in the last several months than I’ve been in a year,” Gibson noted. 

Gibson previewed a work in progress in November 2019 as part of ‘Ballet for Movement Sensors.’ The full performance had been scheduled for the Franklin Institute in 2021. Featured are dancers Jose Mangual and Maddy Mikami, partnering dynamically with their own digitized specters that are visually reactive in real-time, producing dynamic and stunning imagery. Gibson continues to experiment with a new choreographic template for virtual contact improvisation.

Intricate and experimental tech is nothing new in dance. Still, at this time, they are culturally more significant as the dance companies, schools, choreographers, and artists continue to create and connect with audiences through this virtual medium.

To view performance videos of Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet go to www.noragibsonvisualist.com

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