Notes to ENTITY

We were not kidding when we said that Wayne McGregor takes the neuroscience part of creating dance seriously. If you’re preparing to see ENTITY, here are his thoughts on creating the piece.  It would have been excellent to publish these in the programme, but alas, budget constraints prevented it. However, here they are for your enjoyment and edification.

As a choreographer, my primary aspiration has always been the communication of ideas through the medium of the body − attempting to make sense of the world in which we live and commenting upon it, through choreographed language and form.

Choreographic communication is dependent on using the body as the central interface for the assimilation of experience and understanding. We understand the world through the body − our senses working in collaboration to generate emotion and create informed meaning.

This has naturally led me to an ongoing fascination with the ‘technology of the body’, probing to test what a 21st century body is actually physically and psychologically capable of. My thirsty curiosity, as I have discovered, is in parallel with much contemporary scientific investigation. Along with dramatic developments in molecular biology, biochemistry and genetics in recent years, there have been many major advancements in sports science, nutrition, dancer training, injury prevention and rehabilitation, allowing dancers to become stronger, more flexible, healthier and better able to perform physically demanding and challenging works. In the past decade the capacity of the dancer’s instrument − the body − has been radically enhanced, improved and evolved. The opportunities I have had to utilise these advances in my choreography have provided a new dynamic stimulus, for which I am very grateful.

As important as my physiological focus on the body, I have become actively curious about its evolutionary path. The revolutionary influence of biologist Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection continue to pervade our contemporary culture. From Richard Dawkins’s concept of the ‘meme’, through the development of self-replicating mutating systems for viral marketing, to state of the art genetic classification, Darwin’s unique vision has made and continues to make a provocative impact. In its most basic form his approach to evolutionary research − collecting, systemising, classifying and labelling information for it then to be interrogated, accumulating a body of knowledge that subsequently bears insight through translation and interpretation – is also a kind of model for the creative process. I think of my own work very much as a continuum of research, with each individual piece standing as a marker in time. No work attempts to be conclusive or final, but instead presents fluid transitions of understanding to be interpreted individually by each member of an audience.

After all, we all bring our own particular cognitive frameworks to bear on what we experience. When creating a work, I walk through, as it were, the data I have collected for the piece and immerse myself in the literature and ideas central to that investigation. I don’t then attempt to represent that literally on stage or aim in any way for explicitness. I am interested rather in the work emerging from the boundaries of the investigation, where the piece becomes a kind of metaphor for the process of research itself, analogous to the act of physical thinking. However abstract the connections seem, without the research that particular piece could not have been made and would not exist in the way that it does. Research and art-making are for me as interconnected and inseparable as the dancer is with the dance.

Dance is often described as essentially a non-verbal means of communication. Yet so much of my experience inside and outside of the studio, in the practise of making, is not only verbally based but depends upon a shared complex cognitive space between the dancer and the choreographer, the choreographer and the collaborators, and the work itself and the audience. Improvisation, visualisation, mind maps, generative tasks, dual tasks, rhythm exercises, musicality, responding visually to stimuli, constructing mathematical scores, reversing movement phrases quickly, locating yourself and several bodies in complex relationships with space, all demand a clear connection between the brain and the body, an implicit synergy and empathy between cognitive capacity and physical translation. This kinaesthetic intelligence is uniquely highly developed in dancers and choreographers; it is embedded in our training, our daily practise. And, like any other skill or technique, it can and should be exposed, extended and built upon. A new, evolving understanding becomes the scaffolding for artistic risk and experimentation.

If the art of dancing and dance-making then is essentially a kinaesthetic one, offering a deep connection between the mental and the physical, it is a natural progression to consider what cognitive science has to offer the choreographer. With arts researcher Scott deLahunta, I coorganised a series of meetings across the UK and in Paris with experts in the field of cognitive science, bringing neuroscientists, psychologists and brain researchers together to discuss the concept of non-verbal and kinaesthetic intelligence. One of the key questions was how it might be possible to communicate neurologically. Could several brains be wired up to work creatively together without ever exchanging a word? It soon became crystal clear that my fantasy of a totally neurological collaboration was exactly that – a fantasy – for the moment at least. But it was also clear that research in cognitive science could be a catalyst for artistic research and development.

What was immediately engaging in our dynamic conversations across our different fields of expertise was a mutual interest in the relationship between this connection of the brain and the body. What actually happens in the brain when the body is moving? What exactly is proprioception, this sense of yourself? Could exploring the brains of dancers and choreographers bear insight into human movement that was scientifically meaningful, and could this research provoke new stimuli for choreography?

Several intensive projects later the answer is a complicated but resounding yes. From Ataxia − a piece about the disconnection between the brain and the body to engender physical discoordination − to Amu − a work inspired by building a new imagination for the heart through MRI scanning − to Eden | Eden − a work about the ethics of the body in the age of cloning and stem cell research − scientists have proved to be essential collaborators.

As an artist passionate about science, I am often asked whether or not instinct plays a part in my creative endeavour, or if logic and reason (apparently only attributable to scientific thinking) rules. I always find this question surprising − as if I do not have body and brain that are connected, indistinguishable, with its own physical intelligence; as if dancers shouldn’t think and dance should not be thoughtful; as if it would be possible to create without my instincts; and as if this audience member would come to my work without looking for meaning, sense and the concrete. Human beings are meaning-makers after all. I think the question has something to do with the longstanding myth that creativity is somehow alchemy, and that the very attempt to understand it, especially scientifically, will somehow ultimately inhibit its fragile spell. A similar argument is often fashioned against cognitive scientists: if you think about thinking, then surely it changes the nature of thinking itself?

In fact artists and scientists share the same potential to vision, to think differently, abstractly. For intention to release instinct, we are not confined by boundaries: rather we need them to push against. As Stravinsky insightfully notes ‘the more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self’. The constraints for my new work Entity focus attention on the attempt to gain a deeper understanding of the cognitive tool-kit of dance-making. It aims to challenge the very nature of choreography itself whilst utilising a commonplace framework from cognitive science. In their attempt to gain a richer understanding of the brain and its behaviour, cognitive scientists, sometimes assisted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) researchers, often model aspects of it; in order to reproduce thinking you have to intimately understand it. The Entity research project aims to do just that, asking what exactly goes on in the brain when someone choreographs a work − and how one might begin to model this intelligence in a computer.

This ongoing three-year research initiative with scientists from the universities of Cambridge, UC San Diego and Sussex aims to create a series of artificially intelligent, autonomous choreographic agents that can generate unique solutions to choreographic problems alongside my own choreographic practise. We are not talking about dancing robots here, but a series of computer programmes that respond to certain stimuli in their environments with kinaesthetic thinking as their motor. The agents will not dance per se but respond choreographically to the tasks that they are set and then learn from these experiences.

In order to achieve to this level of autonomy, we needed to return to Darwin in the search for a methodology − for an index that might help elucidate the choreographic process, or elements of it, and at the same time might be transferable to a context of artificial intelligence. We needed to be able to understand the process of creating choreography from a cognitive perspective if we were to have any hope of creating autonomous choreographic agents that can do it. Although our progress has been slow, it has been none the less richly engaging. In the meantime, I am immersed in the languages of AI, its particular syntax and grammar, its algorithms and evolutionary dynamics, and its discourse, and it is from here that the first phase of Entity for the stage has emerged. Throughout this research I have been constantly reminded of the power of numbers. Mathematics returns time and time again as the translation mechanism of an abstract idea into something other, into something meaningful and tangible. Although perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. From da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’, to the Divine Proportion or Golden Ratio, to Fibonacci sequences and Le Corbusier’s ‘Le Modulor’, there is so much maths in nature and beauty in science.

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~ by DanceHouse on February 6, 2012.

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