Isadora as a means of composing: A detailed discussion of the potential implications of implementing new technologies within pedagogy

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Francksen, K., 2008. Isadora as a means of composing: A detailed discussion of the potential implications of implementing new technologies within pedagogy. Body, Space & Technology, 7(2). DOI:


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Interdisciplinary Practice through Isadora 2007 Kerry Francksen

By considering the ‘philosophical and aesthetic challenges presented by some of the work now combining dance with new technologies’ (De Spain 2000:2) this paper draws on the findings of a research project titled Interdisciplinary Practice through Isadora (termed the Isadora project) that took place under the auspices of the Centre for Excellence in Performance Arts at De Montfort University (or DMU), Leicester, in June this year. The main aim of the project was to consider how the application of new interactive technologies, in this case Isadora software1, designed by Mark Coniglio, could be used to advance the understanding and practice of the choreographic work that already takes place at DMU. It also aimed to build on current links with other subject areas in music technology, drama and photography and video in order to foster and develop interdisciplinarity and creative and collaborative practice. By reflecting on this particular research project I hope that the methodologies and successful working practices I have identified can provide a useful platform to consider not only the development of the programme locally at DMU but also to identify specific ideas relating to the implementation of technology as part of the creative process. Challenges and difficulties encountered will also be shared in order to consider how the use of technology may be best placed within pedagogy.

‘state one’ video installation 2002 Kerry Francksen & Laura McGregor

This research comes from my own work as a practitioner, which focuses on the nature of the live and mediated body and philosophical ideas relating to presence, resonance, and viscerality. Having established methodologies myself as an artist and researcher making dance video installation and interactive performance, I am becoming increasingly aware of the importance of this in my own teaching on the dance programme at DMU.

My own corporeal explorations of the composite nature of investigating a ‘real’ and ‘mediated’ body in real-time, shifted my philosophical and aesthetic understanding of form. This is now having a direct impact on my teaching of the subject. Choreographers and artists are increasingly developing notions of the body as live, mediated, virtual, the projected image, sound, space and this is becoming common place amongst artists and choreographers working in this context. Many artists are not only using these new technologies to enhance or develop their artistic ideas, they are actually pioneering and creating new programmes and technological advancements as part of their creative process. Therefore, students who will ultimately be feeding this burgeoning area of work will need to be sufficiently prepared so that they can demonstrate an awareness of how such technologies might challenge and develop the creative process.

Key issues arising from the area, which underpin the research undertaken in the Isadora project, draw on the ‘search for methods by which the technology can extend the possibilities of performance.’ (Popat & Palmer 2005:50) Moreover, this ‘search’ also considers how technology can give rise to and become integral to the creative process rather than merely being used as a manipulative tool. As Popat and Palmer state

‘imagnative play’…where the primary motivation is the discovery of the potential inherent in the medium rather than the production of a polished outcome…Playful interaction between the technological and artistic, should in theory, lead to understanding and synthesis in the creative product, provided that the technical skills and qualities of both spheres are recognized and valued so that the widest points of intersection between the two can be explored. (Popat & Palmer 2005:50)

With an emphasis on ‘imaginative play’ and not on the ‘production of a polished outcome’, particularly with regards to how technology might be used in the creative process, what Popat and Palmer describe is useful in that it provides a very particular platform for the production and generation of creative ideas. This is two-fold; it not only sets up a non-hierarchical position in the sense that students are able to engage in the creative process from a position of neutrality, but it also provides a platform for engaging in alternative compositional strategies as exemplified by working across a number of disciplines again with the emphasis on ‘play’ and not product. This in turn means that the integration and understanding of the technology demonstrates a real breadth and depth of critical understanding and application. From the premise of creativity the process is not concerned with after effects or paraphernalia and therefore the technology becomes part of the decision-making process.

In many different ways artists are attempting to explicate and highlight the choreographic and decision-making processes involved by using new technologies. For example, technologies such as, RotoSketch2 and the development of a new interactive on-line score for William Forsythe’s One Flat Thing Reproduced, currently taking place, deal specifically with how technology can document and expose creative decisions. An interesting parallel with the Isadora project can be drawn in the sense that technology can potentially offer a means of exposing and developing new working practices. For students who took part in my research project the use of technology not only enabled them to expose their habitual modes of composing it also highlighted successful ways of renegotiating and reconceptualising performance space and I would argue their conception of composition. As Forsythe states about One Flat Thing Reproduced

we are not trying to recreate the experience of the piece, or the genesis of the piece, it’s not etymological, it’s not archaeological, it’s not historical, it’s not any of that. It’s simply about saying, watch space become occupied with complexity (Staude 2005)

For students studying the working practices and methods of current artists, insights into their creative processes are very important for their articulations on the subject area as well as enabling them to identify strategies and methods for their own creative work. In reference to the ‘complexity’ of occupying space one participant expressed ‘in terms of a hierarchy of media the live seems to promote the most difficult challenges…Overcoming the challenges of the different aesthetic principles or preferences I think is going to be something we need to look at without compromising ideas’. It therefore seems important that any integration of technology needs to be from the perspective of exposing creative processes and methodologies, in some ways similar to Forsythe’s scoring.

Another important issue is the kind of qualitative relation students can develop with the software interface. Fiona Bannon observes that ‘(a)s with so many developments in technology, the skill you would benefit from is making your own software rather than using someone else’s package.’ (2004:35) This is useful to consider in terms of deciding which technologies might be best placed in the curriculum and whilst Bannon was clearly dealing with a particular research output the notion that the most effective way to implement and learn about technologies is to create them yourself throws up an interesting dilemma. Whilst it would prove difficult for a student to create their own software design programmes to the depth and level of those technologies currently available on the market what Bannon refers to is important in terms of questioning which technologies would be best placed in teaching and learning. How this is determined in terms of making the right choice of software for use within a particular course or module is important. For students potentially engaging in new technologies for the first time, the usability and design of the software is crucial. Therefore, ideas relating to ‘imaginative play’, process and not product as well as identifying key features in terms of how the technology can be used as part of the creative process underpins the research undertaken.

I would suggest that the integration of technological resources, particularly as a compositional device, should be based on not just learning how to use the interface but should concentrate on how the teaching and learning of such technology can be absorbed and developed as part of the creative process. It is also worth noting that whilst Isadora was considered a useful tool it became clear that it should provide one means of interacting with new technologies amongst others on the market, in order to consider what Birringer refers to as ‘a digitally enhanced space or “operating system” that triggers responses and feedback.’ (2003/2004: 93) Technologies such as motion capture systems, the use of sensors and other interactive environments also provide other means of engaging in this type of work.

I would also argue that the integration should come from a clear insight into how the technology can give rise to the creative idea as opposed to the technology being seen as a new toy. This has been exemplified by the Isadora project and whilst I am not suggesting that the excitement and potential for continually evolving technologies should be averted I am merely reinforcing the need for the technology to be clearly identified within the creative process. Particularly for the study that takes place within choreography at DMU the integrity of the idea and the ability for a student to push their own boundaries and intellectual perceptions is based on both an understanding of their own working practices and methods and the intellectual and philosophical debates that underpin how the technology can enhance the creative process. In considering these ideas, the findings from the Isadora project are significant.

Interdisciplinary Practice through Isadora 2007 Kerry Francksen

The Isadora project took place over a 7-day intensive period and was extra-curricular. It consisted of nine students from dance, music technology and video and photography. Eight of the nine students were graduating third years and as such brought with them a wealth knowledge in their particular subject area. The project aimed to engage students in a process of creative negotiation and to expose them to other disciplines.

The importance of process over product became the key area for the participants and as the project progressed the importance of ‘imaginative play’ became more and more significant. This focus was made clear to the students early on and they were asked to concentrate on generating ideas and on the creative process as opposed to generating a final outcome. The experience of working in this way, which was seen as distinctly different from their experience during their studies, had a very particular affect on their creativity and ideas relating to the creative process. This was not only demonstrated in their practical work but was expressed personally as part of reflective sessions, which included entries into personal diary cams, and in discursive sessions. One student expressed in her evaluation ‘our initial ideas focused on projection, surface, texture, depth, perception and motion and we simply used Isadora to project our video footage’.

However, she states that ‘as the week progressed our ideas began to evolve and we began to experiment with Isadora and what possibilities it could provide for our ideas. In the end we developed naturally from using Isadora as a facilitating device to Isadora being a key creative component to our ideas’. This is supported by another student who states ‘we didn’t really use Isadora as an ‘effect machine’ but we were more interested in the video and live work and how these two came together in space.’ Through discussions students seemed far more interested in how all of the elements could coalesce in space and how the different compositional elements could be conceived of in real-time rather than how they might use the effects the software could create for example.

It seems to me that one of the potential problems with the actual introduction of new technologies is that those using it or experiencing it should, as Povall suggests, ‘be absorbed in the performance, not in the technology or the tricks, or the gee-whiz effects’. (2001:457) As exemplified by the above student comments the significance of focusing on the ideas rather than on the technology was key. The premise of the Isadora project was for the technology to provide a means of shifting an idea forwards rather than for the technology to drive the compositional elements of the exploration. I was very clear that Povall’s particular viewpoint would provide the context for this project. Whilst it seems imperative for students to be adept in the use of new technologies, should they be deemed to be meaningful for curriculum development, the integrity, and depth of inquiry needed to come first, before the allure of technological possibilities.

During many discussions students felt that their engagement in the creative process was far more effective because the project focused on the generation of ideas and not on producing a final product with the technology. The opportunity to merely concentrate on ‘playing’ with how the technology might give rise to a particular idea was seen as far more fruitful. By having to negotiate their creative ideas before even working with Isadora it was determined that the concept or idea became the driving force, and as a result they weren’t being ‘hooked up’ in a gratuitous way with what the technology could do. This method of working seemed to highlight the compositional strategies and habitual working methods of each discipline, namely dance, music technology and photography and video, and exposed a particular individual’s aesthetic and creative concerns. Furthermore it enabled them to learn and develop their own working practices by dealing directly with how they might compose a particular idea alongside others who have very different working practices and methods to their own. As Kluver describes, ‘the one-to-one collaboration between two people from different fields always holds the possibility of producing something new and different that neither of them could have done alone.’ (Kluver cited in Miller 1998) I would also add that this ‘possibility’ is also created by the introduction of an interactive interface.

By starting from a position of not knowing, whereby none of the participants had actually utilized Isadora, the participants were able to work from common ground. As one of the participants describes, Isadora is a fantastic medium, which everyone can begin with, as there is no hierarchical structure of who knows more – we all learn together. Isadora allows for our ideas to be investigated within the creative process…but not letting it control our ideas or process. The medium is so expansive you could be there for weeks, so it’s easiest when it’s used to work out an already existing idea.’ Also the fact that all of the disciplines come from similar artistic biases meant that the introduction of an interactive environment enabled them to push forwards their own interpretations from a place which recognized the ‘widest points of intersection’ of each discipline and which enabled them to generate ‘something new and different that neither of them could have done alone.’

However, difficulties with this were encountered and many of the participants found that their limited understanding of the technology hindered the creative process due to long breaks in creative thinking to rectify a technical issue. It was also found that ultimately those students from music technology and photography and video who had experience of other programming environments such as Max/MSP and Jitter were able to negotiate Isadora’s interface far more quickly and confidently than those students from live performance backgrounds such as dance and drama. This again affected the creative flow and led to heightened moments of frustration. In terms of actually utilizing the software, as one of the participants described ‘when we did start using Isadora, more shape and fluidity was noted within our groups projects. In some respects (mainly audio) I would say that Isadora was more rigid and inflexible and was most useful for projections…’ Whilst the majority of the participants found the experience positive, limitations with regards to the manipulation of sound were particularly noticeable for others. Nevertheless, one of the music technology students stated that ‘I have found Isadora particularly useful in developing the creative process. I think it has the right mix of technicality and usability to be able to realize ideas very quickly. I think Isadora also has enough depth to delve deeper and helped to expand on the ideas we had.’

So, in order for ‘play’ to happen the software tools employed need to remain open enough so as not to predispose the creative potential to the bias of the programmer. However the interface needs to be conceived well enough to enable clarity of understanding for those using it. Similarly how can the technology, production, and development of the creative idea be both learned and taught in a meaningful way? By becoming more aware of their own skills and their own methods of working they seemed to grow in confidence whilst pursuing something that was considered different or challenging to their normal way of working. It also became clear that their focus was not about learning the other discipline; it was about the application of subject specific methodologies to a process which dealt with notions of interactivity, virtuality and audience participation. One participant stated that

‘this experience has given me many new things to consider and think about in regards to the collaborative approach, technology and theories of ‘being’, space, the virtual and my own practice.’

Interdisciplinary Practice through Isadora 2007 Kerry Francksen

As a result of utilising Isadora as a means of pushing forwards an idea, most of the individuals began to engage with the process of composition in an intelligent and articulate way, most specifically in terms of their treatment of live, mediated and interactive spaces. The main thrust of the week seemed to concentrate on problem solving and learning about their own decision-making processes.

Again I would argue that this is a direct result of the creative methods and strategies employed in terms of how the technology might give rise to creation; that the concept comes before the technology – or alternatively becomes integral to the realization of a particular goal or creative direction.

In conclusion The Isadora project has highlighted the usefulness of placing emphasis on creativity and ‘imaginative play’ and not on a final product and the advantages of enabling a multitude of disciplines to engage together in the creative process. It highlights an emphasis on not only gaining new skills in using interactive technologies but also on exposing habitual working methods and self-reflection. The utilization of the technology, for this project in particular, has been based on the significance of the creative idea and not merely on just learning how to negotiate the technology’s interface. This is in itself a perfectly valuable exercise and interestingly is one the participants craved once the project had finished. However, the key issues arising from my project highlight the necessity for the technology to be embedded into any teaching and learning as a resource that offers the opportunity for creativity and exploration of process.

Kerry Francksen is Senior Lecturer in Dance at De Montfort University. She has worked professionally as a dancer and choreographer, making both live and works for camera. She has screened work nationally and internationally. Kerry has an MA in dance video installation and she has secured funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council as well as individual commissions. Kerry is currently developing her research as part of the Centre for Excellence in Performance Arts and The Centre for Creative Technologies at De Montfort University.


Bannon, F. (2004) ‘Towards creative practice in research in dance education’ Research in Dance Education Vol.5, No.1, April 2004

Birringer, J., (2003/04) ‘Dance and Interactivity’ Dance Research Journal Winter 2003 & Summer 2004 35/2 36/1 pp.88-111.

De Spain, K. (2000) ‘Dance and Technology: A Pas de Deux for Post-humans’ Dance Research Journal Summer 2000 pp.2-17.

Miller, P. (1998), ‘The Engineer as Catalyst: Billy Kluver on Working with Artists’, IEEE Spectrum, July, available online at

Popat, S. and S. Palmer (2005), ‘Creating common ground: dialogues between performance and digital technologies’, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media 1:1, pp.47-65

Povall, P. (2001) ‘A little technology is a dangerous thing’, in Moving History / Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader (eds Anne Dils and Ann Cooper Albright), Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press pp.455-458

Staude. S, (2005) ‘I can dance again’, Sylvia Staude interviews Frankfurt based choreographer William Forsythe, 21 April 2005.



Kerry Francksen





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