contemporary choreography meets medical technology


Contemporary choreography meets medical technology:
Breath Catalogue
 by Megan Nicely/Dance and Kate Elswit
July 16 & 17, 2015
by Hope Mohr

Breath Catalogue by Megan Nicely/Dance and Kate Elswit, with digital interactions by Ben Gimpert, is described as “a cabinet of breath curiosities: contemporary choreography meets medical technology.”  The work ran in Fort Mason’s Firehouse, with a lighting design by Allen Willner that was well crafted to support the understated mood. The audience sat on two sides of the space facing each other, an intimate arrangement conducive to introspection.

Program notes stated that the artists aimed to “make the breath perceptible to the spectator.” To do so, the dancers wore clip-on breath monitors that gathered breath data, enabling the artists to “build feedback loops that develop new choreographic structures.” Throughout the show, the dancers’ breath triggered video, sound and movement content.  Some connections between the dancers’ breath and the art were legible; others were embedded below the surface. Throughout, it was clear that the content emerged from a deep conversation between choreographic thinking and technology.  

There are several Bay Area choreographers who thoughtfully make technology the cornerstone of their choreographic process (e.g., Smith/WymoreKatharine Hawthorne). Add Nicely and Elswit to the list. These artists demonstrate the difference between slapping projection or sound design onto the surface of an already-created dance (unfortunately, a ubiquitous practice) and working with technology as an integral part of the creative process from its outset. 

Breath Catalogue made ample space for the technology in the attention of the audience. Rather than presumptively integrating the technology into the action, the dancers acknowledged it in simple, elegant ways reminiscient of a Japanese tea ceremony. At the beginning of sections featuring video, they directed their gaze (and ours) to the projections before moving. Similarly, they calmly watched and waited for Gimpert to give the thumbs up before every section, ensuring that the tech was as ready as the dancers. 

Nicely and Elswit embrace technology as a tool to excavate a wide array of choreographic textures and to craft specific relationships to time. Breath Catalogue was a series of short studies or “curios,” each featuring a different type of breathing (e.g., “breath is synchronized and slow,” “breath is sniffed and held,” “breath is exhaled on impact,” “breath is even”). Each section featured a different choreographic texture, ranging from the theatrical to the improvised. To announce the beginning of each new section, the dancers opened a drawer in a small wooden cabinet. After each study ended, there was a blackout and they closed the drawer.  Although the structure was episodic, layers of content re-appeared as the dance progressed, creating an accumulation of meaning.

At the beginning of the dance, Nicely and Elswit entered wearing long, old-fashioned frilly gowns (at points, they removed the skirts to reveal corsets and trousers). They began an extended slow unison duet accompanied by the amplified sounds of the dancers’ deep inhales and exhales. The wind off the Bay softly rattled the ceiling.  The dancers’ simple gestures repeated and deepened: curving and arching torsos, stirring arms. Standard post-modern stuff. But the strength of this work is not in the complexity or originality of the movement vocabulary, but rather in the care with which these artists structure the work. There was no stray movement. Similarly, the abstract visuals of the video projections are fairly generic (expanding bubbles, pulsing clouds), but the modest content doesn’t detract from the assured alchemy among media.  In fact, what stayed with me most after the work was how, through subtle means, Nicely and Elswit created a work with visceral impact (compare choreographer Elizabeth Streb, whose dances create visceral impact through bombastic action).

Although Breath Catalogue does not explicitly use the interface between medical technology and the body as an overarching metaphor (compare Steve Paxton’s “Intravenous Lecture,” performed while hooked up to an IV saline drip and discussing censorship), cultural implications are present. The most theatrical study, Section 6, “Noir” (“breath as karaoke”), added a rich layer of meaning to the entire work. The section opens with Nicely using a handheld projector to throw Film Noir footage against the wall. The footage shows a woman frantically running down a dark, empty road.  She looks tired and terrified. She huffs and puffs and moans. In an instant, the work becomes more than a post-modern study of form. Breath becomes cultural.  Through the sound of breath alone, we recognize the cliché of the helpless female. Nicely and Elswit sprint around the space and take turns throwing the projection of the fleeing female on each other’s bodies in clever ways. The video and sound of the frantic female loops over and over. When onscreen a man in a car arrives to save the fleeing woman, suddenly Nicely and Elswit's old-fashioned dresses make sense.

The history of medical technology and the female body is fraught. Radiology was practiced almost exclusively by men in its first decades, and women's bodies were often the test objects of early imaging research (see Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine's Visual Culture (1995)). One trajectory of medical technology threatens to distance us from sensation--the ultrasound becomes authoritative, rather than our own experience. But Breath Catalogue points to a different future wherein technology has the potential to facilitate embodiment.  As in one section of the dance in which Nicely improvises a messy, sensual solo to a recording of breathing so vocal that it's erotic. Technology reveals her to herself. 


Megan Nicely will be one of the Bay Area artists appearing in Hope Mohr Dance's 2015 Bridge Project: Rewriting Dance, produced in association with Counterpulse November 6-8. The program features performances by Deborah Hay (Austin), Jeanine Durning (New York), and Bay Area artists working at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking. As part of the 2015 Bridge Project, Jeanine Durning, who works with Deborah Hay and William Forsythe's Motion Bank, will teach a workshop on creative practice, choreography and performance. For registration and tickets, contact Counterpulse.