Culture is future » Innovation and digital


Digital Dematerialization of the Performing Arts

As Marie Pietragalla and Julien Derouault, the two principal dancers of the Compagnie Pietragalla – Derouault dance company, are progressively engulfed by the dimming lights sectioning their two-hour long pas de deux entitled Mr. et Mme. Rêve, their corporal stage presence is replaced by their digitized image projected on screens. The physical artist thus becomes a virtual performer. The re-transcribed and re-mastered images are the work of Dassault Systèmes – the 3D Experience Company – that in 2005 sought to direct its software endeavors toward more interdisciplinary and collaborative projects. As the line between reality and its virtual representation is slowly blurred, so are the dancers on stage; technology seems to gain the upper hand over the artist’s physical presence in the performance, thus challenging the collaborative nature of the work. Indeed, are the performing arts and digital technologies truly conversing on equal footing, thus fostering a dynamic and groundbreaking dialogue? Or on the contrary, is the progressive dematerialization of the performer an inevitable consequence, in contrast with the visual arts where it is the work – and not its creator – that loses its medium specificity, post-digitalization?    

An accurate re-contextualization? As construed by the dance-digital duo, a certain cohesion is embedded in the collaboration: “the dance brings natural sensitivity to the image, the image amplifies the poetics of the gestures”. Presented as such, the dialogue is indeed balanced, thus fulfilling the goal of creating a new “stage language”, using digital technology to redefine the performance practice. As the dancers sketch ephemeral bodily moments in space, digital technology freezes them on the screen, deconstructing them into stroboscopic motion photography. The visual effects are stunning and mesmerize the viewer, all the while re-contextualizing the dancers onto a two-dimensional surface.

3D: digitalization, diversification, and distraction. Such spectacular effects are in response to the increasing need to entertain a new audience, diversified and homogenized by the more widespread and “cheap” access to digital devices: 83% of the non-profit arts organizations surveyed in 2013 by the Pew Research Center[1] contend that Internet and digital devices “helped make art audiences more diverse”. Digital technologies are attractive due to their ability to engage in a visual experience that not only captivates the viewer, but also requires his or her active participation. New audiences thus seek a similar experience in performing arts productions, a trend that has driven the shift of performance as an attended event to a lived experience.  Entertaining – and no longer simply engaging – the viewer over a two-hour span becomes a primary concern in the art-digital collaboration, as contended by 92% of NEA grant recipients: “Events will have to be more social and allow for greater participation and behind-the-scenes access”.

Technology, a new stage actor? This growing trend in the creative process has the further effect of putting into question the performer as an entity. Indeed, the digital prowess presented does more than add to the décor; it breathes life on stage, almost imposing itself as a performer in its own right. The deus ex machina that was once a source of great awe in Ancient Greece is now but a simplistic effect in comparison to the virtual universes created in contemporary theater.  Yet, just as l’Homme de pierre forcefully escorts Don Juan off stage to the pits of hell, the “magic box” in which Mr. et Mme. Rêve are immersed casts an opaque glow over the dancers’ performance. The virtual universe is a reflection of the power of the engineers’ imagination, but what would become of the choreography if entirely severed from its digital counterpart? Perhaps it is too early in the conception of these emerging collaborations to deliberate on such questions.  However, it will become a pressing question as performance content comes to rely increasingly on technology.  For now, the state of dance and theater is not threatened by the digital sweep and may indeed naturally grow with technological progress, as have the visual arts, setting the stage for… a new pas de trois?

Madeleine Planeix-Crocker