Copy and Collaboration

by Justine A. Chambers
May 30, 2010

“Let my playing be my learning, and my learning be my playing.”
Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens(1938).

Lighting designers, sound artists, costume designers, set designers, stage managers, technical crews, dancers, rehearsal directors and choreographers all play vital roles in the manifestation of most dance pieces, but they are rarely collaborators. Conventionally, the choreographer works with dancers and other facets of the work are developed and integrated at a later time, often just before a performance. This method of group effort and cooperation manifests itself in myriad ways and has been the dominant form for me as a dancer throughout my career.

The above-mentioned format asks secondary creators to fulfill and/or supplement the vision of the primary creator. In my own practice, I wish to open up the idea of the primary creator. If there is in fact one primary creative voice, can the work itself be considered collaborative? Or are there simply points along a hierarchical spectrum occurring through collaborative yet directed processes?

Collaborative creation requires a sense of play, perhaps serious play, in which each creator, through the lens of his or her artistic discipline, equally contributes to the overall vision of the work. No individual creator retains a solitary vision over the work. Rather, a willingness and fluidity to seek a shared vision must be present, which allows all collaborators to have a sense of ownership of the work. Currently, the dominant model in which we create doesn’t typically lend itself to having all contributors in the space creating at the same time. Many factors contribute to this model: Lack of access to the performance space during creation, financial and time constraints, and conventional expectations from both contributors and funders alike.

This past year I’ve played a creative role in three projects that have been primarily collaborative works: Copy, One + the Other and Incoming. Although the creative process for each work has been significantly different, the question of collaboration has been an overriding theme for all of them. Creating a space for each collaborator to understand the others’ desire for the work, and deciphering individual interests has brought about some unforeseen and stirring results. Together, we’ve engaged in playful, imaginative rehearsals where we took time to go down the rabbit hole together to discover a shared language and vision.

Copy began in 2007, with me asking video artist Josh Hite to draw me a line with a beginning and an end. The line he drew spelled copy. I was immediately confounded and the concept itself felt too large for me to digest. By the spring of 2008 we had decided to work together, in an attempt to work through the lenses of both dance and visual art. To date, Copy has manifested itself as a multi-disciplinary and participatory work that explores duplication, mimicry, and degeneration. The piece reorganizes conventional expectations of theatre and lobby spaces, proposes a co-creation between both performers and viewers, and addresses the excessive duplication that is integral to the nature of our digital culture. Rather than a succession of predetermined imagery and movements, Copy is an ephemeral series of fragmented communications between bodies and screens. While choreographic structures will be predetermined to a certain degree, the audience shapes, by their viewing gestures and physical presence in the space, the exact movement of the dancers. The dancers will be building material via the viewers’ relationship to them.

This past January through a Dance Lab in the Faris Studio Theatre we embarked upon our first creation period with all the artists and elements in the room together: choreographer, video artist, lighting designer, dancers, rehearsal director, four video cameras, and four hand held projectors. Prior to this residency rehearsals took place primarily in isolation: the dancers and I in a studio, or Josh and I in our home discussing the seemingly limitless and overwhelming possibilities for the work.

The projectors used in Copy are only eleven lumens, and we knew we needed the expertise of lighting designer, James Proudfoot, to create an environment in which both dancer and projection were visible. However, it soon became clear that James’ role and expertise extended well beyond that of lighting designer. Not only did his lighting contribution influence our explorations, but his thoughts on the conceptual content shifted our trajectory in a way that furthered the architectural and aesthetic framework of the piece as a whole. James brought forward potent configurations of the equipment in relation to the dancers, space and light. His ideas around mimicking the aspect ratio of the projection with light, projecting into shadows and projecting onto bodies became structures that we spent much of our time developing in the lab. In many ways he helped us open up the performance space by shifting our focus off projecting on to the scrim. Josh and I in some ways were dealing with the more minute details of the images while James, due to his placement in the room, was able to take a more commanding view of the whole.

The dancers and I had spent the week before the Dance Lab remounting and refining existing movement vocabulary. I was sure this would allow us to be rehearsal ready prior to the residency. Very quickly I realized that the movement could not be predetermined and had to have a fully integrated presence with the installation. Creating the vocabulary outside of the space, without the technology, the lighting and other contributors was a moot point. Without the other elements, the choreography had no meaning, no reason to exist. This was first and foremost humbling and eventually liberating. It demanded that I accept that copy was not just my vision, but also a shared process that would develop into a methodology, a set of rules, and a type of work and way of working that was somewhat unknown to me as a creator. The methodology was in part determined by our new relationship to the equipment in that it shared the space with the dancers. Due to the fact that we were genuinely interested in integrating them, the result was one of opening up new roles for dancers/lighting designer/choreographer/video artist by not having them broken into a pure division of labour, but all involved were encouraged to swap roles.

Dancers were asked not only to execute movement, but also to discuss their thoughts on the work as well as to stand back from the installation and observe alternative viewpoints of the work. Alternatively, rehearsal director, Erica Trivett and I stepped into the installation to get a fuller sense of the experience from within the work. Through this constant shifting of roles we were able to more efficiently propel certain ideas and discover new ones.

Each day’s work was a series of experiments. Without the pressure to set the work or define what it would become, the contributions of everybody in the room helped to open up possibilities that were outside of our individual perspectives. While I may not have reached my ideal of pure or genuine collaboration, I was able to shift my creative practice towards a less hierarchal and more inclusive process.

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