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Virtual Virtues - Interview with Carol Brown

By Donald Hutera

Image: Carol Brown Dances


‘Cranium was my invention,’ Carol Brown says of a word in her email address. ‘Evil minds and all that.’ Brown is anything but evil, but she certainly is brainy. The London-based dancer and choreographer is given to such statements as ‘Tele-visual
culture is the dominant paradigm.’ Or else she’ll speak of ‘allowing the screen experience to leak into the whole environment of the theatre.’

Smart stuff, obviously, but Brown’s work is not always the easiest to grasp immediately. Her creative track record, however, is impressive, encompassing such earlier and excellent Umbrella presented performances as "Nerve" (2001) and "Machine for Living" (2002). Now wrap your heads, please, around "The Changing Room". Brown’s newest work premieres in early June at the Ludwig Forum, Aachen, where she is to receive a prize for innovation. Choreographed for three performers (Brown and fellow dancers Catherine Bennett and Delphine Gaborit) and four virtual ‘others’, this performance event will incorporate live and virtual spaces within an interactive architectural environment. If that isn’t quite solid enough a description, here’s another attempt to put a virtually indescribable event into words: representations of recognisable furniture, a dresser, a mirror and so on, function as screens upon and through which virtual figures extend and distort human physical behaviour!

Brown’s chief conceptual collaborator on this project is architect Mette Ramsgaard Thomson, a specialist in new media and virtual environments. Reacting favourably to Machine for Living, Ramsgaard challenged Brown to work in the field of live interaction. The result, the latter says, is ‘a visceral mixture of the biological and outer space, with figures which are both tangible and celestial. It’s often said that dance is ephemeral. These figures are more so. They make the body seem quite concrete.’

As someone who sometimes regards with suspicion the use of new technology in performance, I wondered what points of human engagement have been built into "The Changing Room". The question hardly fazes her. ‘The whole point of this piece is that it’s only alive through human habitation.’ Brown firmly believes that she and Ramsgaard are tapping into ‘a whole new concept of what liveness can be.’ The four nonhuman, spherical forms, she explains, are being drawn in virtual space via customised software.

‘They’re improvised in real time and in multiple dimensions, and fed back to us through a series of projections.’ What are the most challenging things about this complex process? ‘Weaving the strands of music, choreography, virtuality, text, costume and lighting to make a complex whole,’ Brown replies. ‘We want to make the virtual body as real a presence as the live body. How do we site the whole thing to give the figures a home? How do we make it palpable so the audience (which will be free to view the performance from three sides) doesn’t just zone out with it? How do we frame it culturally so that the experience is meaningful for them?’

‘We want to make the virtual body as real a presence as the live body.’

Brown hopes her and Ramsgaard’s work will at least partially answer another rhetorical question: ‘What does it mean to inhabit another form?’ To that end, the virtual ‘other’ has been trained to track the live dancers ‘like an animal,’ Brown says. ‘It follows our contours. It’s not trying to imitate our bodies but is creating its own forms.’

‘Our consciousness,’ Brown sums up, ‘is lagging behind the technology that we have. Technology is outpacing biology. Theatre can provide a site for the meeting of the two.’ And in Brown’s case, that theatre has a strong dance edge.

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This article first appeared in the Spring 2004 edition of "Dance Umbrella News"

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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