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The In-Finite Possibilities of Digital Dance

The In-Finite Possibilities of Digital Dance

22 March 2013

How one dance company is making the most of technology to create and share its work

IJAD Dance Company aims to integrate dance with technology, from incorporating user-generated content into their choreography to live streaming performances. Frances Leak asks Artistic Director and choreographer, Joumana Mourad, about the inspiration behind the company and their future plans.

Photo by Andrea DiCenzo

Who are IJAD Dance Company? 
We are a fluid collective of people who collaborate to take the latest technology and find ways of integrating it into performance work. The word IJAD is Sufi and means ‘meant to be’ which is how we feel about the inevitability of technology integrating with art, so if people find what we’re doing odd – our latest project asks the audience to turn their mobile phones on and tweet throughout the show – we just say, ‘it’s meant to be’.

We’re primarily Contemporary dancers but we use a wide range of dance styles in our work and get inspiration from user-generated content as much as possible. The core members are myself, with a Contemporary dance background and strongly influenced by the work of Raqs Sharqui, Neoclassical and Physical Theatre, a part-time general manager, and the trustees. The In-Finite dancers are Robert Shaun Mennear, Morgan Cloud, Viola Vicini, Alice Gaspari, Helena Casari, Naomi Tadvossian, Emily Spiggs and Sally Marie. 

How and when did the company form?
I started the company in 1999 for a variety of reasons: I wanted to use technology to achieve complete synthesis of the real, virtual, visual and the physical and create a fully immersive experience and make contemporary dance more accessible for all. The actual dance is just part of what we do; how we communicate through film, design and visual media is equally important. I felt it was important to set up the company because of the lack of female choreographers in a female-dominated profession. I feel that we still have a way to go in creating gender equality in dance as well as role identity. 

I’m also of Lebanese heritage and while the company is not politically or religiously affiliated, I was keen to represent the Middle Eastern people. This is because, at the time, there were very few artists creating work in this area on the international Contemporary dance scene and I felt it important that the region has a voice – not only to be representative, but because, even today, the only images the West sees of the area are of violence and conflict, which is only part of the story. We are culturally vibrant and creative, intelligent and peaceful people. By creating high quality work which is appreciated because of its artistic merit, I hope to help the movement of artists who are practicing now to change opinions.

What is ‘In-Finite’ all about?
In terms of the content, In-Finite is about secrets – not just about revealing them, but exploring how they feel and what effect keeping them has on your body. We wanted to create something which was political, social and cultural. The performance is interactive and site specific, which begins inside a multi-layered building, where the performance moves from one space to another, taking the audience through a collage of sensorial journeys swarming with rich experiences. 

In-Finite is also a global conversation and experience embedded in digital reality which we achieve by filming on six cameras, broadcasting online and holding public screenings in other countries. Then we ask the audience to use social media to share their thoughts and interpretations as they watch the performance. 

“We ask the audience to use social media to share their thoughts and interpretations as they watch the performance”

The name In-Finite was chosen for the two clear meanings each separate word has and also because it has infinite possibilities in terms of where it can be explored with regard to location and where it can be broadcast to. As well as the ‘outside’, the infinite refers to the inside of the self – the place we keep those things untold, tucked away.

What inspired you to incorporate social media in your show?
It’s already being used by the whole world! If art is a reflection of life, then of course it should be a part of it. I like the way social media is making the world more democratic. This is why I base my performances on content from the public and ask people to express what they think through social media. I want to create a conversation which happens around the world, simultaneously, about meaningful issues. This way, we can create art which resonates with everyone. If you watch the rise of social networks you start to see a ‘digital self’ being created. For some, this is a conscious step, but not for all, yet it still happens. Social media is a step which helps to combine two realities.  

Photo by Andrea DiCenzo

How did you come up with the idea of performing ‘secrets’ that were donated online?
As with most of our work, we chose a theme that was universal. Everyone has a secret and it feels a certain way when you think about it. Different secrets twinge or tingle at different parts of your body. When you express them – even if it is on a piece of paper you tear up – you feel different. They are very, very private, yet they interact with the outside world in a very interesting way on the body, mind and spirit. It was this internal/external flux, which I found intriguing. It has been very interesting working with social media, which is all about sharing and promoting yourself – the opposite of a secret if you like. It has been difficult at times getting people to share. Some people will only do so if they have no contact with you whatsoever, others will only share face-to-face.

I felt it was important to gather secrets online because technology enhances everyone’s ability to participate. 

How many secrets did you receive via Twitter and what has the response to the project been like?
You say ‘secrets’ and people are intrigued and want to see what the scandal is. You then ask people to explore the secret inside them, even without sharing, and most people clam up. For those who have had the bravery to share a secret, anonymously or not, many have found unexpected results.  We’ve had about 160 secrets online in text format, but quite a few more expressed through video and photograph. 

Can a streamed performance be as powerful as a live performance?
I think the importance here is not to try to recreate a live experience. It will always be different. What we are trying to achieve is a meaningful, powerful communication within the digital realm. One of IJAD’s long-term initiatives is called Sensography. In my mind a dancer and a performer are two separate things. The former is about technical and artistic merit; the latter is about interaction with an audience, which I don’t think too many training academies focus on. Sensography is the ability not just to form a connection with the live audience, but to have a relationship with a viewer through a camera, something not too many people have trained in or even think about. We want to open up access online to everyone, and hopefully those people will also come and see it live for a different experience. 

Do you think the arts are doing enough to capture the creative possibilities of social media and technology? 
On a creative level it suddenly opens the doors to amazing collaborative opportunities. Artists no longer have to be in the same country. Just think of the cross-cultural possibilities. It is an amazing way to work together across nations and cultures and to access and listen to stories of people who are not represented and vocalise them through art. It is very exciting and we want the fever to spread across the art world for a new era of experimentation. 

“We want to open up access online to everyone, and hopefully those people will also come and see live performance for a different experience”

What other forms of technology have you used in previous performances/projects or would you like to use in the future?
We’re currently using Google Maps, leaving trails of art in significant places and we’re actually holding a workshop at the Artaud Forum 2013 on how social media can be used in political protest as part of performance art. We’ve used lots of film and sound interaction as well as tracking control systems. We are keen to look at children and technology as there are starting to be cameras and tablets designed specifically for children. I’m interested in looking at how happy we are for children to start interacting with technology, and what their creative output is. It will also be interesting to see what happens socially when we introduce these children to performance online and to other children from around the world in this way.

If you only had one Tweet to define yourself, what would it say? 
Curious, creative, communicator, excited to create interactive physical and virtual performative worlds where audiences can enter freely #worldinspiration!

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