The dance that bridges disciplines

Science and art will meet in two dance performances happening over the month.

Ira Melkonyan and Rebecca Camilleri prepping the up-and-coming –hEx: inverting geometry at the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier.
Ira Melkonyan and Rebecca Camilleri prepping the up-and-coming –hEx: inverting geometry at the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier.

While science and art are often presented as cultural adversaries, this supposed antagonism between the two disciplines will be eroded in the coming weeks, as a couple of performances employ concepts culled from dance - with one of them taking advantage of digital technology - to present pioneering pieces for the Maltese scene.

Tomorrow at MITP Theatre, St Christopher's Street, Valletta, Elements Dance Collective will collaborate with musicians Danjeli Schembri, Holma Qattusa and Yews - along with visual artist Mark Dingli - to present Skirt: 'an interactive dance performance' which will graft the performers' movements onto a three-dimensional display.

"In this performance dancers will be controlling parameters of music and visuals with their movements. This is done using an experimental process known as skeletal tracking on computers, and from this acquiring data and values of what the body of the dancer is doing. This data is then used to control different parts of the music and visuals, so the dancer becomes like the keyboard, controller and performer at the same time," Stefanelle Cachia from Elements Dance Collective said, adding that musician Danjeli Schembri was the one working behind the scenes to make the entire mechanism run smoothly, working with particular cameras and also devising a tracking system that would detect all the necessary motion from the dancers as they are performing.

"So, for example, the lifting of a hand will trigger a particular sound. Basically, before the actual choreography started taking shape it was discussed beforehand which movement will trigger which cues - in the music and visuals - so the entire dance was choreographed in small sections while keeping in mind that particular movements will trigger the technology," Cachia added.

While Cachia states that the music used in the piece will predominantly serve as an underlining "baseline" for the dance, at certain intervals during the performance "movements or levels (whether on the floor or standing) in the dance will trigger the music so this subverts the notion of dance going with the music as usually happens," Cachia said, adding that the trio of musicians were chosen "collectively" by the group, in the interests of keeping this pioneering performance as cohesive as possible.

"We wanted something that meshed but contrasted at the same time."

But in integrating art and technology, with Skirt the Elements Collective also strives to live up to one of its core aims as an creative initiative: to make dance as accessible as possible.

"The idea of doing this multimedia project was in fact to attract different audiences because we feel that dance tends to be categorised for only dance fanatics but a project like this can interest a wide variety of people coming from different backgrounds. At the end of the day, Element's Mission statement states that we want to bring dance to the community," Cachia said.

The Elements Collective's initiative will be followed by a similar-but-different approach by the rubberbodies collective, a dance troupe that are slowly but surely developing a name for themselves within the local cultural scene for their innovative and visually striking shows.

While their previous (often non-verbal) performances tended to dwell on home-grown themes an imagery evoking the most basic elements that make up the Maltese archipelago (most notable of which being, unsurprisingly, the sea) this time the collective, employing performers Rebecca Camilleri and Ira Melkonyan, will take their cue from the 'properties of auxetic materials' as they present -hEx: inverting geometry.

The show will form part of Science and the City - a city-wide festival of science and art taking place at the end of the month - and will also spawn an interactive installation.

But if the title of the show already sounds a bit heavy, just wait till you hear the brief for the actual show. But broadly speaking, the two dancers - aided by visual artist Anthony Askew, will be taking their cue from the concept of auxetic materials - i.e., objects which thicken when stretched, instead of becoming thinner.

Camilleri, however, reassures me that despite its scientific pitch - not to mention its mouthful of a title - the show will not end up being a glorified academic exercise.

"We are not narrating or delivering information about scientific research. We are creating an experience which is offering a reflection on it, an audience member can choose what he or she wishes to challenge within our work," Camilleri said.

In fact, the ten-minute performance - which will loop for an hour at the Upper Galleries of St James Cavalier, Valletta from 20:00 between September 26 and 28 - encourages an element of play: after the initial show - wherein performers interact with each other in the space and have their bodies translated to video space - the artwork can be played with by members of the public (the installation will remain on display until October 15).

"One must be open and want to experience different things. We are providing enough guidance for our audience to understand from where the impulse comes and what we are responding to. There should always be a stimulus for a viewer to consider things differently," Melkonyan said.