Clean Digital Dancing

By Marco Donnarumma, 9 January 2014
Image: Cue Visualizer tool from the Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company

If dance becomes dance only by way of thought, as Stamatia Portanova suggests in her new book Moving Without a Body, what happens to movement and the body, when they’re abstracted into the digital? Review by Marco Donnarumma


Stamatia Portanova’s project, in her recent book Moving Without a Body, is to rethink movement. The context is dance and choreography and its rendition through digital technology. The question she asks is: what happens when physicality is digitised? Refusing the limited notion of ‘movement digitalisation’ as mere disembodiment, the book answers by elaborating on the ‘productive relation’ of the discrete, boolean logic of the digital, and the virtuality of movement.


Video dance, motion capture and movement databases compose the ground of Portanova’s investigation. By looking at how movement is reconfigured by the digital, the book critically analyses the cutting up of motion into video frames, its recording as a stream of data, and its reconstruction through numerical interpolation. Movement is abstracted from the human body and analysed as an object of thought. It is cut into superposed microgestures, ‘a multiplicity of potential cuts’ that the mind integrates as a dance. The hypothesis is that ‘a body is felt as moving, and is thought of as dancing’. Dance is an immanent integration of movement. That is, dance is dance only in thought. As such, movement is not relegated to the human body for Portanova. We can perceive the dance of colours, microchoreographies of everyday gestures, and this is made possible by the ability of thought to integrate movement as a ‘multiplicity of different perceptual sensation’.


We are presented with three nexuses of sensation that enable movement to become the ‘imagined togetherness’ of a dance. The causal nexus refers to the sequentiality of movement. The cut of movement into a before and an after with specific relations is what makes a dance. Temporal relations in sequential microgestures enable the mind to think dance. The presentational nexus makes qualities come to the fore of dance perception. The movement of matter can be thought of as a dance, for instance, a dance of a given combination of colours or shapes. A topology of dance emerges, where movement is understood through a topological map of its qualities. The digital nexus is the cutting out and magnification of superposed microgestures. The potential of movement for an infinite combination of possible gestures is leveraged by the discrete logic of digital tools which affords infinite cuts, the fragmentation of motion into loops, frames and floating numbers.


Moreover, Portanova draws on Leibniz, Deleuze and Guattari, and Erin Manning to assert that movement is a relational process that occurs in the body. Positioning the process of movement within the body, rather than something that is produced by it, causes the qualitative variations of motion to forgo ontologically its quantitative translation in space. From this viewpoint, movement data registered by motion capture technologies is seen as a trace of the diagrammatic potentials of movement. In other words, for Portanova, motion capture data yields the capability to explain movement by mapping out its qualities. Through the play back of motion capture data, dance can then be re-actualised across multiple bodies and multiple media without losing the topological qualities of the motion. We recognise the gesture of raising an arm whether performed by this or that body, or by a digital skeleton on a computer screen.


Portanova’s discourse produces a body wherein the impossibility of being able to distinguish body and mind is meaningful only if conceived together with their inherent distinction. Within such a body, it is the thought that, by complementing bodily feelings, brings into being the abstraction of dance. Portanova affirms that we sense movement through bodily feelings, but it is only through mental operations that we can understand it as a dance. From this standpoint, she looks back at the digitalisation of physicality and states that, because the idea of movement can come about ‘with and without the body’, the digital cut or ‘extreme disarticulation’ of movement by means of software processing affords an infinite range of potential relations between choreographic thought and technology. Storing movement data registered with a motion tracking system, cutting and looping movements recorded with a camera, and animating abstract digital bodies using a movement database are processes that indicate the ‘imaginative, mnemonic and creative reflections of a movement idea that becomes digital or discrete’. The digital as a metaphor of thought yields the potential to crystallise and rearrange the infinite complexity of movement that exists in our bodies as a latent possibility. Abstracting physicality, as much in choreographical thought as in the binary logic of software, is to explode the potentials of movement that our natural human bodies cannot disengage.


As a performer working with bodies and computational means, I found Portanova’s work challenging and inspiring, although some aspects of it seem inconsistent. Portanova states clearly that her intent is not to support dualistic views of the body, but throughout the book her argumentation seems to undermine this. The book brings forth a refreshing and constructive view of the digitalisation of physicality, yet physicality itself is not discussed. In so doing, the discourse seems to nurture a latent idea of the primacy of thought over the bodily domain.


The issue is further complicated by Portanova’s argument that mind and body are two different systems with exclusive capabilities. Movement is felt by the body, and understood by mental operations, Portanova says. This makes sense as long as we imagine a distant observer looking at a dance. But if we think of a dancer intimately producing and experiencing movement, how are we to understand the dancer’s experience of motion? Could we still say motion is felt bodily and understood by operations of the mind? When a dancer dances how does she understand her own motion? Dancers do not ‘think’ when dancing, unless they are explicitely required to. They do not have time to think. If they thought of every step and phrase they would not be able to follow the tempo of the dance. One of the most important skills dancers have therefore is that of feeling, understanding and producing motion through the immediacy of their bodily responses to visceral physiological mechanisms and spatial information. Despite the originality and ambition of Portanova’s project, an important flaw lies in the fact that the book discusses dance without considering the flesh and the body that performs it. When it comes to thinking about the digitalisation of bodily motion, the main theme of the book, thhis issue becomes crucial. Expanding Portanova’s initial question: What is lost when physicality becomes digital numbers?


On this note, another issue is the lack of consideration for errors in the digitalisation of physicality. The book mentions often the potential of the infinite combinatorial capability of the computational logic, yet it does not consider how that potential is affected by the inevitable presence of digital errors. Think, for instance, of digital noise, the irregularities in a stream of sensor data usually caused by electromagnetic interferences, electrical hums or computational errors, and data overflow which is an anomaly of computer programs that happens when the quantity of stored data increases beyond the storing capability of a buffer. Portanova advances an idea of the digital as a metaphor of the mind, where the digital she considers is a white clean space deprived of any irregularity. If, instead, we understand the digital as a space where errors and anomalies are inescapable, can this ‘corrupted’ digital still be a metaphor of the mind? And if so, does that metaphor produce an equally ‘corrupted’ mind?


Marco Donnarumma <m AT> performs, writes about and tinkers with bodies, using natural and technological media to create intense physical performances, dance, media theatre and installations.