Why technology should listen to dance

I posted this to my Rambert residency blog tonight, and thought I’d share it here too.

Technology is a binary world. If someone isn’t on, it’s off. There’s nothing in between. The unknown can be inferred immediately from the known. Two states, two possibilities, two points in time and space. It’s pretty straightforward, really. Except of course, it isn’t. Because it’s a peculiar little belief system about certainty, strung on gossamer across the void in the middle of a world of manifest uncertainties.

I’ve noticed in the course of my career that technologists themselves can have a similarly polar view of the world that extends far beyond technology. The only things of note are the amazing and the terrible. All will be tested against a reference checklist for their category; all things, ideas, people and professions will become emblems of glory – or mockable irrelevance – after Judgement against the Unmentionable Canon of Awesome.

Everything is then active or passive, awesome or awful, known for sure or never entertained. Not only that, but everything is personal: consider the casual language of ‘wins’ or ‘fails’, not loses and gains – what happens to you is your fault. It’s you against the world. And as you face down the options, alone, you’re either with us or you’re against us.

Everyone is speaking the same language, but we are alone and mute grasping for codes to unite us in our fragile reference world of ‘awesomeness’. We want to protect ourselves against the very judgement that we issue over everything and everyone else. So we gather a language around us, but it doesn’t belong to any of us.

Now I love a good logical polemic, and indeed perhaps I’m doing one here, but it seems to me that dance isn’t like this. Dance seems to me far more scientific, far more technical, and far more open to transgressing its own social culture if that’s required, to engage with whatever is real. Although there is a tremendous amount of apparently arbitrary convention in the learning of dance, these ancient conventions have grown around the pursuit of truth. The key difference with technology is that no one is being protected – protection is about metaphors and allegories and superheroes and fairytales and finding the nicest story to tell ourselves to keep our group united. That’s technology for you.

But dance can’t do slipperiness, flattery or spin. Quality is not backwards-applied in the same way as it is in other cultures, where common decisions about awesomeness protect the value of the individual within their tribe. Lacking tech culture’s reassuring (but often hollow) shared references and common enemies, with a value system based on objectively-verified quality, dance is open. It’s free from the slimy reassurances of literal storytelling, and open to the possibility of continual surprises about how little we know.

Dance is the discovery that a circle is made up of enough straight lines, and the knowing you will never know how many. Dance is the confidence to know you don’t know everything, the confidence that hangs in the space between the points. You cannot draw dance. Dance barely exists! It is intention and expectation and pure, absolute, surrendering to the lack of sense in the gaps between words. I watched a lot of choreography last week and I realised it’s a magical spell that doesn’t stand up to reason at all. There’s some real changing of gears going on, for me, at the moment. Suggesting movement based on an emotion, or an imagining of a different identity; suggesting movement based on music and history and the wordless but totally comprehensible relationship between one’s personality and one’s body; prioritising a feeling as the driver of motion?

And indeed how else would you do it? How can you start anywhere but there? How can you begin to make dance any more technical than it is – when it is the absolute, unquestionable, reality? It is the one and the zero! It is the proof technology is wrong, in its fundamental principles! The performance looks superhuman and the technician will think of robots and computers – but literal, technical instructions won’t get you anywhere; dancers are just humans, dancing.

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