Dance on the spot
Abbott Miller’s iPad contemporary dance apps for the 2wice Arts Foundation – a dynamic coming together of code, choreography, music and design – bring playful, digital interaction to loops and layers of physical performance
Designer Abbott Miller and Patsy Tarr, publisher and director of New York’s 2wice Arts Foundation, have been collaborating for more than twenty years. Together they have staged and restaged dance choreography for both the printed page and for digital media. Their work has appeared in the dance criticism magazine Dance Ink (1990-1995) and in the visual and performing arts journal 2wice (launched in 1997), as well as in exhibitions, books and now app designs. Through photography, videography and music, they show how dance can overlap with and be enriched by other art forms.
As art director of Dance Ink, Miller explored photo shoots as ‘a form of dance’ with, he says, the magazine acting as a ‘venue for performance’ (see Reputations in Eye 45). Subsequently, in the printed edition of 2wice, he acted as both editor and designer, developing verbal and visual expressions side by side in themed issues with titles such as ‘Glow’, ‘Picnic’, ‘Ice’, ‘Uniform’ and ‘Night’, which brought disparate art entities together with dance. Both titles added a fresh dimension to contemporary dance publishing, giving it a new space to explore, as well as the opportunity to collaborate with photographers.
In recent years, Miller and Tarr’s collaboration has jumped off the page into film and digital media, with the first of four apps that placed dance performances in another new space: an iPad ‘stage’ on which the viewer can interact with the dancer. Miller says: ‘The apps have a built-in distribution model that is international and accessible. With the print magazine we were limited to bookshops and distributors.’
Spread and cover of 2wice ‘How to pass, kick, fall and run’, named after a 1965 piece by choreographer Merce Cunningham. Photo of Tom Gold by Jens Umbach.
Spread from a three-part photo essay featuring Tom Gold. Here the choreography is presented not just through movement, but on the body and in the space, in the form of dance notation from a 1950s book How to Dance.
Top: Gold’s choreography is infused with comic effects and nods to Charlie Chaplin. In this sequence, Gold uses a long-armed paint roller as a prop and dance partner.
The aim of the 2wice Arts Foundation is to ‘inform and educate the public about dance’. Miller says: ‘The apps fulfil that mission because they extend the potential audiences. But the bigger motivation was to explore motion and interactivity. We realised that most dance and performance in the digital context did not conceive of the tablet as a medium, and that was our mandate for print. We saw the page as a stage; now we are doing the same with the tablet.’
The first of the four apps, simply named 2wice (2011), began modestly as a reframing of the printed version of ten of Merce Cunningham’s ‘Events’, performed between 2001 and 2007 and originally featured in 2wice vol. 6 no. 1, the ‘Picnic’ issue, 2002. These time- and place-specific works, presented here in the form of a modest app, acknowledged ‘Cunningham’s devotion to new ways of seeing dance’; they included moving images – something print can never do.
The second, third and fourth apps have been more conceptually ambitious – to mesmerising effect. Miller’s designs for Fifth Wall, Dot Dot Dot and Passe-Partout each explore a single spatial idea: Fifth Wall plays with loops; Dot Dot Dot with levels (and therefore perspective); and Passe-Partout with layers. They all create the illusion of depth on a flat screen. Miller says: ‘These three apps use the idea of the space within the frame and how you navigate space within the construct of a “window”, even if that window has a changing orientation or functions like a passe-partout [i.e. a picture mount] to allow different views.’
In terms of the collaborative process, Miller’s designs precede the choreography, but they are informed by, and are sensitive to, the personality and approach of each choreographer. ‘Jonah Bokaer [Fifth Wall], Tom Gold [Dot Dot Dot] and Justin Peck [Passe-Partout] are extremely different in training, temperament and aesthetic sensibilities, so this has a critical impact on the language and spirit of the app.’ Each app has its own distinctive mood.
Bokaer, one of Merce Cunningham’s dancers, is the subject of Fifth Wall, a quiet looping piece that exists at the edges of a rotating black frame (which is itself within the frame of the iPad). The app uses the iPad’s accelerometer and changes orientation, switching from landscape to portrait when the device is rotated. However, it is predominantly camera trickery that creates the illusion that Bokaer can magnetically adhere to any of the frame’s four edges. Bokaer appears on four edges on the frame, on four separate frames in three preset formations that can be manipulated by the viewer using tapping and pinching gestures to call an individual screen forward or increase or decrease its size. Fifth Wall and the two subsequent apps, were programmed by Eddie Opara and his team at Pentagram in New York, where Miller is a partner.
Spread (right) and cover (below) of Dance Ink, Winter 1993/94. The entire issue was printed in black, fluorescent orange and grey.
Spread: performer / choreographer Lance Gries, photographed by Stewart Shining.
Cover: Portrait of artist Charles Atlas by photographer Josef Astor.
Former New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold performs in Dot Dot Dot, a playful piece of original choreography that begins with an aerial view of nine black dots. When tapped, each dot reveals Gold seen from above doing a short passage of choreography that is accompanied by Charles Yang’s score for solo violin. Gold jumps on a dot, spins in place, strides around it, steps away and then goes back on to it. He also appears from within a dot, which is the first clue that there is a way of penetrating the dots: as you progress through the app, you descend to lower levels, where it becomes apparent that the dots are the tops of solid black columns. Gold’s choreography is tinged with humour throughout, which has him emerging and retreating behind several of the columns to comedic effect, and borrows from different dance styles, such as ballet, tap and contemporary. But the iPad stage puts the viewer much closer to the dancer than would ever be possible in a theatre. Small details, such as Gold’s eyeliner, black nail-varnish and beads of sweat, become part of the experience. That the effort involved is so visible only adds to the appeal of the piece. The bottom level of the app puts Gold back on to the dots, performing a longer piece of choreography. Gold is seen from the front and this passage has no interactive elements. This portion of the performance comes to an end as Gold exits upstage, fading into the distance.
Passe-Partout, choreographed and performed by Justin Peck with dancer Daniel Ulbricht and with music by Aaron Severini, is the most recent of Miller’s complex app designs and is described as an ‘image and sound experience’. The user brings the dancers on and off stage using either the gyroscopic motion-sensitive controls (in other words, tipping and tilting the iPad) or by tapping coloured dots, corresponding to the colour of the dancer’s costume, on the left of the screen. Both actions result in horizontal lines being drawn across the screen, starting and stopping as dancers enter and exit, creating a kind of ‘choreo-graphic’ score. The app layers dancer in front of dancer, giving the impression that the viewer is standing with their back against the mirror at the front of an infinitely deep studio space, holding the position of choreographer or ballet master – dictating the movements of the cast. At times, the interaction puts the viewer face to face with a dancer. At others, the viewer is miles away, watching the same dancer through the semi-transparent arms and legs of other performers. Unlike the other two apps, the sequence comes to a definitive end. But there is the bonus of being able to save the particular choreographic sequence the user has orchestrated. Passe-Partout is the app that lends itself most obviously to teaching.
Fifth Wall, Dot Dot Dot and Passe-Partout, Miller says, ‘demonstrate choreographic ideas and explore the way in which the technology enables us to create dance and represent dance. I think they try to satisfy different needs: from wanting to see these particular performers, to wanting something that is almost pedagogic, to someone who likes the game-like quality of them. They have a very different character than traditional performances that gain a lot of structure from their duration and change from beginning to end.’
Alice Vale, artistic director of the dance company Adaire to Dance and lecturer on choreography and contemporary technique at the University of Lincoln in the UK, says: ‘Having sampled [the apps] I felt inspired to bring them into the studio and allow my students to explore them.’ She is writing a new degree for the University of Derby and sees a potential teaching role for the apps, as a way of bringing students closer to live performance.
Screenshots from Miller’s first dance app, 2wice: Merce Cunningham Event, released July 2011, a digital adaptation of the print magazine, 2wice vol. 9 no. 1, ‘Cunningham / Rauschenberg’, 2006. The costumes were designed by Robert Rauschenberg for choreography by Merce Cunningham, who directed photographer Joachim Ladefoged on conveying the works as a sequence of still images. Editor-in-chief: Patsy Tarr. Editor / designer: Abbott Miller. Design associate: Kristen Spilman. Developer: Rubenstein Technology Group.
‘Although these apps present full-bodied pieces of work, there is scope to dissect the choreography and have a level of interaction and control which is so rarely found in live performance,’ she says. ‘Degree students … learn how to implement methods and create work, but are often restricted to creating on themselves or their fellow classmates. To be able to use these apps and let them see professional dancers at work, as well as being able to control them, would be invaluable to the learning process. Dot Dot Dot and Fifth Wall also present an insight into the use of space, showing how versatile a performance area can be.’
Abbott Miller’s conceptually driven design and art direction acts as a critical tool for showing the intersection between the visual and performing arts. And the 2wice Arts Foundation apps present a new, technologically advanced space for dance that makes it available to new audiences outside the constraints of print publishing – and perhaps of theatre. The collaborative process brings together video, music, choreography and programming to stretch current boundaries of editorial, performance and interactive design for three-dimensional space.
When asked ‘What next?’ Miller responds: ‘I’d like to do something that allows the user to move outside of the frame and really follow movement through an architectural space. That, and the idea of entering and re-entering a (conceptually) continuous performance.’
The Fifth Wall, Dot Dot Dot and Passe-Partout apps are all elegant and interactive expressions of choreography and art direction that can be enjoyed repeatedly, since no two performances will ever be identical.
The frames can be made large or small. Tapping the screen twice makes one frame fill the space. Producer: Patsy Tarr for 2wice Arts Foundation. Concept, direction and design: Abbott Miller. Choreography and performance: Jonah Bokaer. Video direction: Ben Louis Nicholas. Design associates: Kristen Spilman, Andrew Walters (Pentagram). Developers: Eddie Opara, Frank LaRocca, Hunter Cross, Ken Deegan (Pentagram). Sound: Jared Hutchinson. Music: Co-composed by Eric Beach, Josh Quillen and Jason Treuting of So Percussion. To find the app, use this link: eyem.ag/fifthwa
Abbott Miller’s second dance app Fifth Wall, 2012, is a quiet, looping piece that presents four views of the black frames in which solo dancer Jonah Bokaer performs constantly. By turning, tapping or pinching the screen, the viewer can manipulate the individual frames to achieve different effects. The camera spins on a central axis, creating the illusion of Bokaer defying gravity. Some of Fifth Wall’s video footage exposes the bare wood and cables of the physical frame, so the app displays not only the choreography but also the mechanics of the set.
Gold inhabits his virtual ‘stage’ with glee, accompanied by solo and multitracked violin performed by composer Charles Yang. Producer: Patsy Tarr for 2wice Arts Foundation. Concept, direction and design: Abbott Miller. Choreography and performance: Tom Gold. Video direction: Ben Louis Nicholas. Design associates: Kristen Spilman, Andrew Walters (Pentagram). Developers: Eddie Opara, Ken Deegan, Hunter Cross, Yo-E Ryou (Pentagram). Sound and music: Charles Yang. Managing editor: Jane Rosch. To find the app, use this link: eyem.ag/dotdotdotapp
Dot Dot Dot
The third of Miller’s dance apps, Dot Dot Dot, 2013, opens with an aerial view of nine black dots, which are later revealed to be the tops of nine solid columns. Through descending layers, we see dancer-choreographer Tom Gold playing with depth and perspective of the graphic set.
Dot Dot Dot is structured like a four-storey building with several rooms on each floor. The performance begins on the top floor, which is responsive in ways familiar from gaming – tapping dots starts and stops passages of choreography.
On subsequent levels, Gold is seen front-on, and less interaction is required. Miller says: ‘The apps have tried to give meaningful agency to the user; they all do nice things with simultaneous and scalable video. However, they are closer to video than gaming. Ideally we would … like to ignite an interest among performers to think in this direction.’
Producer: Patsy Tarr for 2wice Arts Foundation. Concept, direction and design: Abbott Miller. Choreography: Justin Peck. Performers: Justin Peck and Daniel Ulbricht. Sound and music: Aaron Severini. Video direction: Ben Louis Nicholas. Design Associate: Andrew Walters (Pentagram). Managing editor: Jane Rosch. Developers: Eddie Opara and Ken Deegan (Pentagram), Kiattiyot Panichprecha and Chanin Pakdeethammasakul (Bit Studio). To find the app, use this link: eyem.ag/passepartoutapp
Abbott Miller’s fourth dance app, Passe-Partout, 2014, danced by Justin Peck and Daniel Ulbricht, allows the viewer to bring dancers on and off the stage by tilting the iPad, or by tapping the coloured dots that match the costumes. Both sound and image overlap. Passe-Partout’s layered videos and coloured rules – which indicate when the viewer has brought the dancers and their accompanying music scores on and off the iPad stage – recall Miller’s art direction of ‘How to pass, kick, fall and run’, a 2004 issue of 2wice magazine that showed layered images of dancers.
Developer (and Pentagram partner) Eddie Opara says: ‘The collaborative nature truly extends beyond the dancer-choreographer. The content allows the user experience to be incredibly open.’
The horizontal lines, drawn as the viewer orchestrates the dancers’ entrances and exits, disappear when the sequence is saved and replayed. This ‘save’ feature separates the viewer’s making process from the final performance – a piece of saved video footage that can be ‘shared’.
Sarah Snaith, design writer, editor, London
First published in Eye no. 89 vol. 23 2014
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue. You can see what Eye 89 looks like at Eye before You Buy on Vimeo.