• Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Features| New York Times

Google lab brings tech to Martha Graham’s dance floor

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company at Google’s New York offices on May 7. Google — through its Google Arts and Culture website and app — is on a mission to find new ways of braiding technology with culture.

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NEW YORK >> At Google’s New York offices, a tiny room with bright green walls and a maze of wires had been transformed into something resembling a science lab, by way of a Danny Kaye movie. But instead of microscopes and white coats, there were dancers and leotards.

The dancers’ bodies were wired to move, though not just for movement’s sake: This was a laboratory for dance experiments.

Google — through Google Arts and Culture — is on a mission to find new ways of braiding technology with culture. For two weeks in May it partnered with the Martha Graham Dance Company for a residency in which members of the Graham team worked with artists and Google technologists on several experiments.

Why the Graham company? For MJ. Newman, the project lead at Google, the relationship with the Graham organization is, in part, because of its forward-thinking mentality. “The Graham center has always been very eager about being on the cutting-edge of technology and looking for what’s new,” he said.

It’s fitting: The company’s founder, Martha Graham (1894-1991), was a revolutionary. Considered the mother of modern dance, she transformed her art form by stripping her movement, rooted in the pelvis, down to its purest essence.

This isn’t the first time the Graham organization and Google have teamed up. The first came in 2011 when they created the Google Doodle in honor of Graham’s 117th birthday. Next, beginning in 2015, was a partnership with Google Arts and Culture to create exhibitions for the Google site.

During the recent residency, some projects were more successful than others, but all were well worth watching: Dancers moved silkily inside 3D environments that were then projected onto screens for mixed-reality experiences. Graham’s “Lamentation,” from 1930, was reimagined using archival imagery of the solo projected onto a moving dancer. And a Graham dance was captured in 3D, transforming Anne Souder, in a motion-capture suit, into an avatar — like a figure in a video game — when her performance was transferred to the screen.

The residency didn’t just expand the Graham company’s relationship with Google. It was also a continuation of what Janet Eilber, the group’s artistic director, has been doing for years — experimenting with Graham’s core collection of works and technique.

“We have discovered that the essential Graham canon — the very best of Graham — is so pure that it can be dressed up in a whole variety of ways and still speak clearly,” Eilber said in an interview.

“You can decorate it in many different ways or use it as a springboard for many different things.”

For Eilber, technology is a tool with which to do that.

Would Graham approve? “She, if anyone, understood and desired new ways of getting to audiences,” Eilber said.

LAB WORK

“Let’s do the pelvis,” visual artist SoHyun Bae said in one of the sessions.

Bae was referring to “Pelvic Terrain,” from her “Jasper Lake” series of paintings that inspired a new work created with Tilt Brush — a Google tool used to make 3D paintings. The result was a virtual-reality environment for dance improvisation.

As Graham dancer Natasha Diamond-Walker put on a virtual-reality headset, Bae said, “Just think of yourself as water.”

Onlookers couldn’t see what Diamond-Walker was looking at through the headset — the environment Bae had created — but her sudden stillness registered that she was enthralled.

“Oh, wow,” she said softly. “I see a pelvis here. And a tailbone.”

Gradually, Diamond-­Walker began to move, stretching ribbonlike arms as she carved through the space. Eilber asked three other dancers, Laurel Dalley-­Smith, Xin Ying and Souder, to enter the performance area, one by one.

“You decide when to come in,” she said. “Build off the nymph that goes in before you.”

The three additional dancers, headset-free and interacting with Diamond-Walker, mirrored movement quality of one another, sequentially. It was a sensual, gossamer melding of bodies that grew increasingly layered.

When it was over, Diamond-Walker described the environment she had seen in the headset: “You could see the brushstrokes — there were no sharp endings. It was feathered out and curved like a ripple almost, like if you had dropped something into water.”

AN EERIE PROCESS

During the residency, creative progress was made in reimagining “Lamentation,” Graham’s solo in which a dancer wearing a tube-shaped costume comes to symbolize grief.

Over the years, Eilber has invited contemporary choreographers to create “Lamentation Variations” as a way to expand on and explore the solo’s breadth. For the Google residency, the company teamed up with Tyler Henry, who, with a Kinect camera, used optical flow, which tracks movement, to recast the solo.

As Diamond-Walker performed it — with her body half-obscured behind a scrim — archival images from past performances flashed by, mirroring her positions as the Kinect camera pulled photographs from a database Henry had created.

For Diamond-Walker, the process was eerie. She could see the images of past dancers, including Graham, go by — their poses revealing profound pain and grief — as she moved through the choreography in slow-motion.

NEXT STEPS

“You’re kind of seduced by the technology,” Eilber said. “But pretty quickly I realized, wait a minute — why us? Why dancers, and why Martha Graham dancers? That has to be part of the equation. Otherwise, you’re just playing around like you’re at a kid’s birthday party.”

In the coming weeks, the company will discuss how the experiments that worked — namely Henry’s “Lamentation” — can make their way into the real world. A couple of presenters, Eilber said, including Jacob’s Pillow and Carolina Performing Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, are interested.

And the question remains: Is it better than just dancing?

“It’s not that we’re trying to make ‘Lamentation’ better, by any means,” Eilber said. “We’re trying to find new ways to consider Graham’s art form.”

Collaborating with Google has allowed that to happen.

“My main revelation was that Graham had to be about Graham being integrated with technology,” she said, “not just playing around with technology. We don’t feel like we reached the end of the journey, but we found potential.”

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