Sparks (with Juha-Pekka Marsalo)

Antoine Schmitt, 1998

Performance : danced dialog between a dancer and a visual entity.

Computer, video camera, videoprojector, behavioral algorithm, interactive with a dancer.
Installation designed to be used as a partner for a dancer in choregraphic improvisation situation.
Created for the performance of Juha-Pekka Marsalo, given at the Théâtre Contemporain de la Danse (TCD) in Paris in November 1998.
An autonomous artificial creature, Sparks, doted of vision and of a specific behavior, locked up in its screen, improvises in front of a dancer. The dancer sees Sparks, Sparks sees the dancer, they dance relatively to each other. Sparks imitates, gets filled with energy, goes away, gets bored, comes back. Sparks is for the dancer a partner full of energy, light and surprises.

Sparks genesis
At the beginning of 1998, I was contacted by Juha-Pekka Marsalo, who had received a command from the TCD to present a solo dance of 20 minutes. He had decided to work in collaboration with other artists in related domains. He was interested by my work using computers as medium of creation, which Yvane Chapuis had told him about. He asked me to thinks about a proposal for an 5 minutes intervention inside his performance. I was already working on “Celui Qui Garde Le Ver” with Joana Preiss, and I wanted to go on working on improvisations between a performer and an artificial creature. After some thought, I proposed the idea of Sparks, which he immediately accepted with enthusiasm. I built the system, and we rehearsed during the summer, then gave the representation in November. Juha worked on the other parts of the performance with Anne-Marie Cornu for a collaboration around the 16mm cinema image, as well as with a theater director for a very theatrical part, and finally with a musician for the general sound system.
Sparks is at the same time the name of the installation and the name of the creature that it contains. The creature is designed to be used as a partner for the dancer in situation of improvisation. Sparks itself is programmed to have degrees of freedom. We are thus in a situation in which both the cancer and the creature are free of their movements, and move according to internal rules, and especially according to one another.
Indeed, in the installation, Sparks appears on a big videoprojected screen and has a human size (even though its shape is not human at all). Sparks moves on the screen and Juha, standing in front of the screen, sees it. On the other hand, a video camera placed at the bottom of the screen captures the image of the dancer. This image is sent to the computer which analyses it in real time in order to abstract some information about the position and the shape of the dancer. This information are transmitted to the part of the algorithms that make Sparks move, according on these information and on internal states. So Sparks sees the dancer and the dancer sees Sparks.
I had a description on paper of the overall behavior of Sparks, and when I programmed it, I followed this plan exactly. All the work of rehearsal was about tuning the various parameters of Sparks behavior according the the one of Juha, as well as tuning the projection conditions and relationships with the other parts of the performance. It has also mainly been useful for Juha to get used to Sparks behavior. At the end, during the representation, I think that Juha was completely used to Sparks. He treated it like a partner, like another one, having it way of being, its defaults, its form of presence.
Sparks behavior is inspired by the general underlying theme which was “a love story between a dancer and his image”. Sparks is programmed to have have a tendency to imitate the dancer (like in a mirror). Meanwhile, the dancer plays with this imitation, or dances and ignores it. When Sparks has gathered enough energy by imitating the dancer, she gets free and dances alone, remembering passed movements of the dancer. Sparks has thus a memory. When she dances alone, Juha can imitate her or not. After a certain amount of time, she looses her energy and starts again imitating the dancer. We thus have a game of imitation and separation between the two partners. Sparks having a very fluid and dynamic shape, and Juha being a very physical dancer, the interaction between the two generates a great energy. When the dancer leaves the field of view of Sparks, she remembers the dance steps of the dancer, and while remembering them, forgets them. If the dancer does not come back, she ends up with an empty memory, and regains the indefinite shape she had before the dancer arrived.
Sparks has been a great experience, for one thing because of the collaboration with Juha-Pekka Marsalo who was always ready to throw his body, his intelligence and his energy in the experimentation, and also because it enabled me to tackle with the codes and constraints of dance, and to verify what I had perceived with “Le Ver”, that is that “free” interaction between an artificial creature and a performer was a very rich field of experimentation, and at the same time could be inserted in known practices (dance, singing, etc..). Especially, I think that this type of interaction bring a huge energy (for lack of a more precise work) to the performer by the simple fact that he does not have an purely reactive instrument in front of him, but a thing that has its own freedom, and on the other hand, the confrontation with a creature that is not subject to the same physical laws but nonetheless having of a certain behavior makes us focus both on the physical body of the performer and on his own behavior, that it its presence, and this is what the whole performance is about.
Antoine Schmitt – July 2000

Sparks behavior
[Initial notes on which Juha and I agreed. The presented version follows exactly these notes, except the fact that in the representation one does not see the public in the screen. The Light-Image later received the name Sparks, because of its dynamics.]
A love story between the dancer and his Light-Image, his double in image, that sometimes escapes from him. My Other one.
The screen faces the public, the dancer is backstage. On the screen, a mirror image of the public, with the stage in the middle, but no dancer. The screen is a mirror of the room. There are sparks of light wandering on the screen.
The dancer arrives in the space between the screen and the public. But he does not appear on the mirror-screen. Instead, in the mirror, the sparks of light have gathered affectionately to form a cloud of whirling lights, having more or less the shape of the dancer. It is his Light-Image. His Light-Other. Himself, also, but in the other world, the world of images.
He moves, the sparks follow his movements. The cloud shrivels, amplifies the movements of the dancer. It is a toy for him. He admires himself, so beautiful. There is so much energy, so much pleasure in the movement. The lights dance with him, they jump, they come back, fast. Symbiosis, game, complicity.
Then they leave more and more, they start to take some freedom. They seem to want to play by themselves. The Light-Image detaches from the dancer. Slowly, coming back often. But it ends up by leaving completely.
She replays old movements. Elements of known movements. Alone. She has fun. She teases the dancer. She remembers too.
She ends up liking it. She goes further. She is even afraid of the dancer who tries to get close to her. She likes her freedom. But she ends up coming back. Then she leaves again. She is playful.
Him, falsely despising, tries to seduce her. To approach her. She flies, or not, it depends.
But she always comes back, in the end. And he ends up getting bored with her. It leaves the stage. She is sad. She replays the old movements. She ends up dying of loneliness.
Until he comes back.
Antoine Schmitt – July 1998 (modified August 2000)


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