REVIEW: Megan Nicely’s and Kate Elswit’s "Breath Catalogue," a performance that combines contemporary dance with medical technology
By Joe Ferguson
At the moment, there is a profanity in the tech industry. Great efforts are being made to measure and assess not only our consumer habits, but the very physiological actions that underlie our existence. Fitness trackers, sleep scanners, posture monitors--it is a rare day that I scan the newspaper and not find a new app or gadget designed to optimize my life. For a fee, apparently I can improve everything about my previously-unquantified and inadequate natural biology. The New York Times and SFGate have run popular features on the trend.
Technology is a tool--not exclusively an industry--and in the right hands it can be used to enlighten rather than instill fear that encourages consumption. Such was the case in the premiere of Megan Nicely’s and Kate Elswit’s Breath Catalogue, a performance that combined contemporary dance with medical technology.
The performance began in the foyer. Attendees gathered in front of a small chest of drawers. Inside each drawer were instructions and instruments that drew attention to the participants’ breath. People smelled from small jars, reminding them that breath carries scent. Others blew up balloons, slowly carried them to a corner, and added them to a growing collection, demonstrating that breath can fill space. There were many more exercises, each seeming to prime the viewer’s mind and body for the next part of the performance.
When the time came, the audience was asked to move into the theatre. The performance space was intimate with two rows of chairs on either side. Nicely and Elswit entered the room in long, flowing skirts that whispfully framed their movements. They wore Spire clip-on monitors that gathered breath data and transmitted it via Bluetooth to a computer. Their idea was not to simply track the data, but to “build feedback loops that develop new choreographic structures.”
The performance was built around a series of 12 curios, each featuring a different type of breathing--for example, sniffed and held, at odds with movement, exhaled on impact. Some of the curios included live sensor data and light visualizations that were projected on the wall behind the dancers. The visualizations varied, at times appearing to measure breath as intensity, and other times breath as volume.
The lighting design and accompanying music were spare, not distracting from the larger theme, and supporting introspection. The performance ended with a brief Q&A, and an announcement that the data from the evening’s performance would be collected and made available on a website. In addition, viewers were invited to write their reflections of the performance and leave them at the theatre.
The contrasting curios provided interesting provocations. For instance, Curio #6 included the fearful gasping of Cloris Leachman in the opening scene of the 1955 crime noir Kiss Me Deadly. Curio #7 featured subtle musical accompaniment on strings, live and remixed sensor data, and an additive eyedropper visualization. The combined affect evoked the varied ways in which we perceive breath--from danger to beauty--as well as how we can quantify physiological activity, and give that data meaning by visualizing it and applying it to composite human experience.
The performance had an educational tint--the activating of schema through exercises before the performance, the presentation, the Q&A, and written reflections. In all, it implied that performance can be more than passive entertainment; it can inform and inspire. It is unlikely that the audience could have cued to breath as effectively without the exercises beforehand--most were unlikely professional dancers, and as acutely aware of breath’s many feelings and manifestations. The inclusion of a Q&A, written reflections, and posting of data to a website for review, further substantiate the artists’ efforts to make the performance meaningful and informative, without an overly instructional presence.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the data was complementary, an interesting, but unnecessary, pairing to Nicely’s and Elswit’s simple, beautiful gestures, but that would be unfair. The quantifying of live physiological data, presented in novel visual forms, qualified the dancers’ movements in ways that potentially enhanced understanding in an assessment-conscious, tech-savvy audience.
For art to be contemporary, it must reflect our current conditions. Digital and information technology is part of the fabric of our society--it can exploit or it can inspire. When handled thoughtfully, emerging technology can deepen the human experience, as Nicely and Elswit demonstrated in Breath Catalogue.
Breath Catalogue was a collaborative performance that required many talents including Megan Nicely (choreographer/performer & costume designer), Kate Elswit (choreographer/performer), Ben Gimpert (data scientist & interaction designer), and Daniel Thomas Davis (composer).
You can find more information about Breath Catalogue, as well as the latest data collection, here.