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“It was a fascinating journey of discovery…”

28 September 2018 | Emily May

Alexander Whitley has created a choreographic space odyssey that has his dancers “floating in the most peculiar way”, to quote a certain rock and roll legend. Inspired by solar imagery and created in collaboration with STFC RAL Space in Oxfordshire, “8 minutes” will be touring venues around the UK through October, and has even been developed in to a VR film! We caught up with Whitley to find out how he went about translating solar activity into a multifaceted dance theatre work.

Culture Calling: Your latest piece 8 Minutes is a collaboration with scientists from STFC RAL Space in Oxfordshire. How did this come about?
Alexander Whitley: It was actually RAL Space that initiated the project, which is unusual. Normally for a piece of choreography I would have an idea and approach collaborators to realise it. But for the last 5 years or so, RAL Space have been working on ways of developing public awareness of the work that they’re doing, and in a rather round-about way through Sadler’s Wells, the proposal for a dance production about space, and the sun in particular, ended up on my lap. I think the project came to me because I’ve been incorporating experimental technology into my work, and also creating pieces that have scientific themes underlying them.

Image Credit: Johan Pearson
 
CC: Have you always been interested in space?
AW: Not so much. But when I was approached, the prospect of being able to work with scientists and an institution of this calibre – people there had partnered on some of the biggest international space missions – was hugely inspiring. I’ve been interested and inspired by science for a long time, but always explored it through my reading. So the opportunity to work first hand with scientists, learn about the research they’re doing, and delve in to subjects at that level of depth was really the most exciting thing about it. It was a fascinating journey of discovery for me, and also for the artists I was collaborating with, video artist Tal Rosner and musician Daniel Wohl. Tal was able to incorporate a lot of footage from space missions that RAL have been involved into the visuals for the stage production itself, so there were lots of rich materials to draw upon.

Image Credit: Johan Pearson
 
CC: Can you describe why solar imagery is a good source of inspiration for dance and how you went about translating the stimulus material into movement?
AW: The imagery is dynamically rich. When you see the footage of the sun, it’s so incredibly beautiful. The impression of the sun that we get is just this hot, white, yellow disc in the sky. But when you see the highest definition imagery, it’s so incredibly rich in its texture, and a lot of the research is about understanding the behaviour of the sun in finer and finer detail. What’s being discovered is that there are incredible phenomena like solar flares, and magnetic field lines that produce these areas of activity where the solar flares come from. The phenomenon we’re identifying through this imagery is all dynamic in character, there are many different movements and qualities. So there was a lot that I could draw upon there. There’s also a lot that we did while attempting to get our heads around the theory, which is incredibly complex – the vast majority of it went over my head! But some of the basic principles were enough to help us consider how the body could interpret some of them. Magnetism for example, which is hugely important in our understanding of the sun’s activity, can do a lot when you’re thinking about the organisation of seven bodies, and lots of limbs!

Image Credit: Johan Pearson
 
CC: You also collaborated with electroacoustic musician Daniel Wohl and visual artist Tal Rosner for the production. Can you explain a bit about how all these elements come together to create 8 Minutes?
AW: Well they’re all present on stage! The visuals are obviously a very important part of the production. We have a 5m2 LED wall at the back of the stage, which the visuals play out through. They really function to set the context for the choreography. The power of that for me is that it transports the dancers to different environments. In making a piece about space and the sun, it was important to me to give an impression of the dancers being more than just human beings, that they might at some points seem to be particles of light or protons or matter, and be viewed more abstractly. The visuals really help with allowing them to be read as different things.

Image Credit: Johan Pearson
 
I worked really closely with shaping the visuals around the choreographic ideas that I was developing, so that there was a conversation between the movement onstage and onscreen in a way that attempted to establish a balance between the two, so that they weren’t competing or vying for attention, but supporting each other to give the audience a rich picture to appreciate.
 
CC: You’ve also collaborated with the Guardian to create a VR film, Celestial Motion inspired by the stage show 8 minutes. How do you think VR technology will change the way choreographers create, and audiences experience dance? Do you have any plans to work with it again in the future?
AW: Definitely. I’m fascinated by what it changes in regards to those things. It’s a very different way of experiencing dance for the viewer, because they can be put at the heart of the choreography amongst the dancers. When you’re making work for stage, there’s a very definite idea of where the audience are viewing from, but when you’re creating for virtual reality, you have to think about where you place things and ideas in a way that gives the viewer cues and prompts to look around and explore their 360° environment. Also, with VR, you can visualise the body very differently. In Celestial Motion we used a combination of 360 film and motion capture technology, so that the viewer can switch between seeing the dancers as they would appear on stage, or in their motion capture form as abstracted bodies. For me, it’s really fascinating that we can take human movement and transform how it appears, and that in VR the choreography and visuals can be really combined.
 
 
8 Minutes is touring the UK to venues including York Theatre Royal as part of York Mediale (29 September), Science Museum (5 October) and Oxford Playhouse as part of Oxford Science and Ideas Festival (13 October).
 
 

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