Interview with Scott deLahunta, part 1: On working processes and digital realms

by deborah on 02/9/2011

My next interview from the series of Cognitive of the Performative programme by Centre for Drama Art aka cdu was made during the Workshop with Choreographic Objects that I attended in December, guided by Scott deLahunta.

Scott deLahunta is a former dancer and choreographer, who began working in the mid-1990s as a researcher and coordinator for projects bringing together new media and live performance practices. For years he’s been advocating for creating software tools for choreographers from the environment of emerging new technologies.

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Photo above: Scott deLahunta, photo taken from Random Dance Company (c)
Photo bellow: Synchronous Objects Project,
The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company (c)

This included the prototype Roto – Sketch annotation tool for video developed with Zachary Lieberman. It is from within this framework that his engagement began as researcher and advisor on projects with choreographers such as Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe, Emio Greco & Pieter C. Scholten, Deborah Hay, Siobhan Davies.

Currently, deLahunta is the project leader of Motion Bank, an initiative of The Forsythe Company building on the results of the Synchronous Objects project (developed in a collaboration with The Ohio State University) that deals with data visualization as a part of choreographic practice.

In his capacity as Senior Research Fellow at Coventry University (UK), he works as the director of R-Research of the Wayne McGregor | Random Dance company engaging in long term interdisciplinary study of choreographic creativity and related tool building with cognitive scientists. Through Coventry University he also has an association with the Siobhan Davies Replay – the first comprehensive on-line digital dance archive.

Shall we start with your theater roots? When did start your interest in dance and theater?

SdH: I started dancing in college in 1984. I was interested in theater initially and as part of my theater course, I started studying dance. I discovered I could make my own work in the dance department. In the theater department you had to take part in plays. But in the dance department you were encouraged to make your own choreographies.

I already liked the physicality of dance I guess maybe because I was into sports when I was young. And I liked making my own work and making new work with others. It was a very inspiring period for me. During that time, I was introduced to the 1960’s Judson Church period of experimentalists working in dance. It was my first introduction to the culture of contemporary arts practice. I found that all really exciting.

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Trisha Brown: Man Walking Down the Side of the Building, 1970
Photo: Carol Goodden (c), taken from: artslive.ca

Early 1980’s was a period when physical theater and dance were quite strong… maybe some influences from this period?

SdH: That’s true. But generally I was into the work of Trisha Brown and others following the more abstract and non-narrative line. The focus on dance construction as a way of making appealed to me. I worked in the late 80s with a choreographer who was inspired by the dance theater work of Pina Bausch, which had been first shown, I believe, in the USA in 1984. In that 1980s period drama and narrative kind of came back into dance in the states.

Also ballet training was coming back into contemporary dance, where as in the 1970s the untrained performer seemed more popular. It’s a good question if I was inspired by work in the eighties. I guess I was interested more generally by what came out of Judson. So, in addition to Brown, people like David GordonYvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs. I liked their way of thinking about dance, the formalisms they seemed to be working with.

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Lucinda Childs: Dance (c), 1978

What about Bob Wilson and Philip Glass, they did a lot of repetitions?

SdH: I didn’t really get introduced to Wilson’s work so much then. It wasn’t until I was living in Boston and I saw the Knee Plays, which were I think the inter-acts in his Civil Wars and made in collaboration with David Byrne of the Talking Heads. I remember seeing that work in Harvard and being very inspired by the choreography and general mise-en-scène. He worked with very large objects. I think I saw something else he did with Lucinda Childs. So I was attracted to the ways in which he thought about movement. There was a lot of stillness and repetition.

I do remember being very interested in how Wilson thought about making things. You know, as I have gone along, I’ve become more interested in how people make things and tried to discover information about their process. It could be difficult to find. One might find an interview with the artist in which they discuss their process, but really without working with them to get at the process can be tricky. It may not be something they talk about very much, or maybe something others simply don’t ask them about very much. People seem to prefer to talk about the work itself.

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Troika Ranch (c)

Then at the beginning of the nineties you became more interested in technology and new media…

SdH: I had computers since the mid-eighties just doing word processing type things. In 1989 I had my first e-mail address. So I was comfortable with the technology. Up until then I had not really thought of the computer as a creative tool. Then in the mid-nineties I became aware that a lot of dance artists were working with interactive technologies – exploring what they could do with computers and new media. Like Troika Ranch and others who are now well known in that field.

People were putting dances online and using the Internet for creating choreographies. I remember Stephan Koplowitz developing small interactive Java applications to do this. So, I became interested in how the new media was impacting choreographic practice. This also opened up for me the whole field of electronic arts in sort of retrospect.

Klaus Obermaier – Apparition, 2004, Interactive Dance
Dramaturgy: Scott deLahunta

A whole landscape full of hidden labyrinths…

SdH: Yes, and looking back at the whole landscape of electronic arts particularly where it overlapped with computers and computation fascinated me a lot. Because I realized that there was this connection back to the dance artists I was interested in from the sixties and seventies. For example, Trisha Brown developed ways of making dances using rules and structures sometimes referred to as ‘algorithms’ for dance. She wasn’t the only one.

I looked at the period of early cybernetics and artificial intelligence research and how this overlapped with arts practice. For example, the Cybernetic Serendipity Show in London in the late sixties was a seminal event. Here artist engineers were programming computers as creative partners. That period was particularly interested time for computers and creativity. In the eighties and nineties not quite the same kinds of things were happening. Anyway this connected with my interest in choreographers of the same period.

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«Cybernetic Serendipity», 1968
Taken from Medien Kunst Netz

Yeah, there is also a constructive creative process present and the exploration of the analysis of these processes… I’m interested in that because this is crucial in your present work with William Forsythe around Synchronous Objects… it’s about the analysis within we are invited to completely deconstruct the process, not just presenting a tool for understanding the whole complex… and what dancers might be doing, but not knowing it… What do you think?

SdH: I think that’s a good question. I’ve never really thought about that. How that process of analysing One Flat Thing, reproduced (the dance which is used in Synchronous Objects) was a process of deconstruction. It was, but it was also one of bringing in new information. For example, some of the dancers were interviewed extensively about what was in the video to help the designers and programmers understand what they were working with.

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Synchronous Objects Project,
The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company (c)

And in that sense it was a process of constructing descriptions. I have heard some dancers identified elements like cues they thought others were giving or getting, but it turned out not to be true. In some ways, there is misinformation in the whole system. There has been agreement on terminology and things named and annotated which may not have been exactly what is happening in the performance.

But this isn’t surprising. It is a sort of enhancement of the original ideas and I don’t think it diminishes how uniquely Synchronous Objects offers the dance up for examination. And one can explore how counterpoint works via the Counterpoint Tool, which uses a sort of rule set one gets to play with a bit like “flocking”.

Can you tell me something about your work with Wayne McGregor, cause he is also interested in cybernetics and he also accepted new media, especially working with scientists…

SdH: Wayne and I have a working association going back to 1999 or 2000, when we found we had a mutual interest in the creative process. He was interested in understanding his own process better and in enhancing communication with collaborators. He was inspired by scientists developing things like artificial intelligence and neural nets to simulate mental thinking processes. He had the idea to use these technologies like artificial intelligence in choreographic tools.

Since we had this mutual interest in the creative process and I was already thinking about developing software tools for choreographers, we took his questions, and I worked to set up the research that would help him explore them. So that’s how our collaborations with cognitive scientists began.

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Wayne McGregor & Random: Entity
Photo: Ravi Deepres (c)

Cognitive science is an interesting area because research can involve philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and artificial intelligence computer scientists amongst others – all coming together to explore the question of how the mind works. It seemed the right place to look for people to help us conduct research into the choreographic creative thinking process.

So, that’s how we came together. At first the work with the scientists was very exploratory, but results are now finally emerging. But, there was always this one underlying motivating objective: how could we build or programme an artificially intelligent choreographic agent.

An entity…

SdH: An entity yes! Programmed to solve choreographic problems in the studio alongside the dancers. Think about some of the early concepts for artificial intelligence research. To understand how our mind works we might try to create an artificial one. But that requires modelling and so studying the mind one wants to simulate right? Now we know that artificial intelligence hasn’t been very successful actually at recreating a fully functioning mind, but it’s still an interesting way of approaching the question.

So we took that approach, and the first step was to research how the dancers were solving the choreographic problems or tasks Wayne set them in the studio. This research has yielded the Choreographic Thinking Tools for us, which are a mix currently of concepts applied in the studio and actual science experiments looking at the dancers’ use of mental imagery in creation work.

Anyway, that’s been the reason we kept thinking about building this artificially intelligent choreographic agent over several years, because it continued to inspire us to understand more about the creative process. And we have, in collaboration with Marc Downie and Nick Rothwell, actually programmed a creative software tool called the Choreographic Language Agent that has some agent like properties and the potential for autonomous decision-making.

Read the second part of the interview with Scoot deLahunta here: Catching some dancing algorithms