Re-Substantiating the Dance: William Forsythe's Synchronous Objects

Re-Substantiating the Dance: William Forsythe’s Synchronous Objects

Synchronous Objects: The Dance. Image courtesy of Linda Caruso Haviland.

Editor’s Note: This essay was commissioned as part of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (the Center’s) research on the topic of “restaging.” The Center also recently funded the production of William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite at Pennsylvania Ballet.

Although Forsythe is known primarily for his dance/performance works, his interest in re-performance or re-presenting does not end on the stage. He is deeply involved in finding new ways to re-substantiate what he calls the “trace” of the work in the world, to re-materialize in some other media what had been incarnate some time ago in the dancing body. He collaborates on or creates objects that counter the “irretrievability of the choreographic enactment,” objects that can “generate autonomous expressions of the dance work’s principles”—that make those organizing principles “visibly persist”—beyond the dance’s possible score. He also designs and creates objects and events that make visible their own organizing principles, or choreography, with no reference to any existing dance work. 1

Foundational to his work is Forsythe’s belief that the dance work is a locus of human thought and ideas that can be apprehended or read. This led him to speculate about virtual or material objects that could enable dance works to “exist in another durable, intelligible state” 2 that would enable continuing encounters with it after the fact of its performance, as well as the concomitant technologies of recall and retrieval necessary for such objects to function. One such “object” that demonstrates Forsythe’s attempt to extend the life of a ‘dance,’ albeit short-term, is City of Abstracts, which has been installed in over 20 museums, galleries, and public spaces worldwide. A catalyst for dance-making as well as an object that provides a sustained reading, City of Abstracts beckons or challenges every passerby to interact with it, not just as passive observers but as movers whose gestures generate the screen images. The work is constructed as a monolithic video grid of multiple smaller and contiguous screens over which a single, nearly real-time video image is distributed. City of Abstracts records, slightly delays, and then transforms and projects real-time human motion into smears and whirls of spatially and temporally elongated images that eventually drip down or float away to the edges of the screen. The slight delay then enables the viewer, if she chooses, to pause and watch her ‘dance’ both move and dissolve over a span of seconds into little heaps of stillness, the dance gone, the image and the body at rest.

Screenshot of Ola Ahlqvist, “Movement Density” from Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced. Image courtesy of Linda Caruso Haviland.

The project that most approaches Forsythe’s goals and intentions of longer-term, sustained readings of dance works is Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced (Sync/OFTr), a Web-based collaboration with Ohio State University faculty from across multiple disciplines. 3 Project participants gleaned numerical, spatial, or temporal information from videos of Forsythe’s dance work One Flat Thing, reproduced 4 recorded from various perspectives, and then transformed this data to create other media, events, and objects. The project presents, as the press release describes, “an original collection of screen-based visualizations (video, digital artwork, animation, and interactive graphics) that reveal interlocking systems of organization in the choreography.” For example, one “synchronous object” developed by Ola Ahlqvist in Ohio State’s department of geography, used “spatial summary” software to trace where each of the dancers spent most of his or her time in the dance. The density of movement was then transformed into a topographical landscape with colored mountains representing the hot spots. Ahlqvist did this for the dance as a whole and for each individual dancer’s pattern of movement through space and time.

In disciplinary-specific ways, the “data” of the dance was used to generate a variety of primarily virtual objects each capturing the structural or dynamical elements of the dance. Examples of the 20 resulting synchronous objects include “performative architecture” and “statistical counterpoint.” While all of these synchronous objects operate as informative renderings of dance data, many take on a life as art objects in their own right. This site has been presented in galleries and other spaces worldwide, using elements of the original Web-based project but, as one of the original collaborators, Norah Zuniga Shaw, explains, “re-imagining them in space and time,” changing the number or alignment or size of screens that project visuals of the objects, providing more or less interaction for viewers, creating new sound and narrative environments. 5

Do these objects on the Web or in the gallery succeed in providing a protracted reading of the past dance work? Certainly no one of them taken separately can give a viewer the full sense of the dance as performed. It is also likely that certain objects will give more information about the dance and have more significance for those who share disciplinary affiliations with the creator of that particular object. Nevertheless they do provide the possibility, as Forsythe hoped, for a “sustained examination” after the fact. The viewer can view and re-view them repeatedly, interact in some cases, and consider them individually or in conjunction with the other synchronous objects. If they do not re-present the dance as performed, they certainly re-present the complexity of the choreographic act as well as the necessary intellectual and bodied intelligence of the dancers. Synchronous objects serve, then, not only as re-substantiations of a dance work, in part or from one perspective, but also as “alternative site[s] for the understanding of potential instigation and organization of action to reside.” 6 Further, they can serve as generative objects, sources, or inspiration for new ideas, new work not just in dance but also in other disciplines or fields.

Motion Bank home page, accessed September 25, 2013. Image courtesy of Linda Caruso Haviland.

Another project, Motion Bank, is a Web-based project intended to provide “a broad context for research into choreographic practice,” in part by serving as a virtual repository for online dance scores. 7 The form and scope of the score for each dance are uniquely conceived and constructed in collaborations among the creators of the work, theorists, and technicians. It is designed to attract a broad and diverse audience who would interact with its text, animations, and other synchronous “scores” and who, as Forsythe desires, “would eventually understand and, hopefully, champion the innumerable manifestations, old and new, of choreographic thinking.” 8 The possibility of using data to reconstruct or re-substantiate some variation of the original work resides in Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced, the variety of other objects synchronous to a dance that were spawned by that project, and in Motion Bank, but their primary purpose is making available the possibility of entering, analyzing, or experiencing the complex structure and constitutive elements of the work for the first or the nth time.

Forsythe’s investigations have taken him beyond framing virtual or material objects as archives or synchronous counterparts of dance works. He has questioned whether the term “choreography” itself could be extended beyond dance to describe or define other actions or categories of events or objects. This can be seen as both a maneuver to extend the meaning and range of the term “choreography” and, more practically, to enable the extension of his creative processes into other objects—”choreographic objects”—that, distinct from any existing dance, could hold, make visible, and transmit his choreographic impulses, ideas, dynamics, and structures. He asks if it is possible “for choreography to generate autonomous expressions of its principles, a choreographic object, without the body?” Can “physical thinking,” as he calls it, materialize itself in some object other than the body? Elsewhere, he elaborates, suggesting that a defining characteristic of the choreographic object is that “you cannot know the work without motion.” 9 His choreographic objects, which frequently manifest as installations, are not, he argues, substitutes for the body but instead require the body for their “performance.” As with synchronous objects, the choreographed objects are interdependent with the bodied movement of the participants—or, in some cases, the spectators each exert mutual influence on each other while remaining distinct. Choreographic objects could not, as one might argue of synchronous objects, represent an instantiation of a particular choreographed work. But they would count as re-substantiations of the act or process of choreographic or physical thinking or perhaps as acts of choreography in themselves.

Forsythe’s rethinking of the term “choreography” and its application can be found in several essays or interviews, among them: William Forsythe, “Choreographic Objects,” Synchronous Objects (April 2009), and Marlon Barrios Solano, “Interview with William Forsythe @ The Hellerau,” (April 7, 2009).
Premiere: 2000, Bockenheimer Depot, Frankfurt, Germany; Choreography: William Forsythe; Music: Thom Willems.
“Sync Objects Installation in New York City” Synchronous Objects (February 1, 2012).
“LIVE from the NYPL: William Forsythe & Alva Noë,” (October 9, 2009).