From July 6th to August 3rd 2016, we (Teoma Naccarato and John MacCallum) had the great pleasure to take part in the Djerassi Residency Artist Program (DRAP) in California. Over the course of a month, we lived and worked together intensively with dancer Laura Boudou (Marseille, France), and flautist Stacey Pelinka (Berkeley, USA). The residency was titled Scientific Delirium Madness, and is a collaborative initiative of Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (ISAST) and DRAP The bios of all 12 scientists and artists in attendance are available here:

During our time at Djerassi, we deepened our ongoing collaborative practice with dancers, musicians, and biosensors, with particular attention to breathing and listening techniques. We also created two short performance studies, in preparation for a piece to premiere at Tangente Danse in Montreal next April 2017. As part of the Djerassi Annual Open House on July 24th, we presented a lecture demonstration, in which we shared aspects of our developing practice, as well as the two performance studies:

Below, I provide a brief account of our collaborative questioning, making, and ongoing areas of investigation, including:

  • Breathing techniques
  • Performance Study 3: Polytemporal Breath Composition, with click-tracks
  • Performance Study 4: Dancer/Flautist Sketch, with ECG
  • Listening Techniques

Breathing TechniquesIMG_4116

Breathing techniques have become a significant focus in our project, because they allow us to address questions regarding:

  • physical extremes for performers – including the dancer and musicians;
  • correlations between respiration and heart rate variability, providing complex rhythms in the ECG, and therefore the click tracks for musicians; and
  • relationships between breathing and weight qualities, that in turn inform temporal-spatial aspects of the choreography.

At this stage, our breath work is exploratory, and includes the following activities:

  • Collective breathing structures: Progressive breathing structures performed as a group, with a range of styles in terms of tempo, tidal volume, location in the body, nose versus mouth inhalations and exhalations, and more. For example, a structure might include slow deep breathing, then fast inhales with slow exhales, a gradual build to panting, a breath hold for as long as possible, and then time to recover. The group proceeds collectively through each style, with no guide or external clock. Each structure includes extremes of highs and lows, so that individuals can challenge their capacity for exertion and relaxation respectfully, and differently with each iteration of the exercise.
  • Mix of meditation and somatic techniques, involving breathing into different body parts, using touch to guide breath in one’s own and other’s bodies, imagery and metaphor, partner breathing, etc.
  • Feldenkrais workshop with Stacy Pelinka, in which she guided us in an exercise titled: “Differentiation of Parts and Functions in Breathing”::
  • Weight studies: Investigation of relationship between breath, weight qualities, and use of time-space, as a way to both build and decouple habits, and further, to achieve greater versatility in performers. This work builds on Vera J. Blaine’s weight studies techniques:
  • Free diving techniques: Guided, progressive O2 and CO2 tables for sustained breath holding. The purpose of this training in the context of our project is to achieve extremes in heart rate and heart rate variability, thus impacting the state of each performer, as well as the temporal range in the click tracks for the musicians. Informed by websites such as


Performance Study #3: Polytemporal Breath Composition, with click-tracks 

Study #3 is a composition for three performers, and will inform a section of our piece to premier next April 2017 at Tangente. This study emerged directly from our collective breath practices, and also from John’s focus on polytemporal composition. In this study each performer wears headphones, and breathes in time with a click-track that varies smoothly and independently over the course of ten minutes. As the trio breathes together, rhythms diverge and converge, to create musical textures. Choreographically, we find that there is a compelling intensity to watching the performers breath, traversing the peaks and valleys of the score.



Performance Study #4: Dancer/Flautist Sketch, with ECG

 Study #4 is a 10 minute duet for dancer Laura Boudou and flautist Stacey Pelinka, and is intended as a rough sketch of ideas to inform our piece to premiere at Tangente Danse next April 2017. The study is performed with the audience sitting on the floor in the round, facing the exterior of the room. Each observer holds a hand-held mirror, which they adjust to view the choreography from an individual perspective.

The questions underlying this performance experiment are many, but center on an examination of:

  • the relationship between the performers and observers, in a context mediated by hand-held mirrors; and
  • the relationship between the dancer and musician, in a context mediated by the ECG click-track.

We shared this study twice, once for the fellow residents at Djerassi, and once at the Djerassi Open House for a larger audience. In both instances, we received feedback from the public that their active engagement with the dance, by shifting their perspective in the mirrors, led to a sense of immersion. Several people likened the experience to real-time video editing, in which they framed each subsequent shot. Choreographically, this scenario requires an unusual treatment of space, and exaggerates the always-present role of the audience in actively perceiving a performance. The movement vocabulary was created with Laura Boudou based on the experiments regarding breath and weight qualities, mentioned above. The choreography involved a lot of repetition, but with varied spatial patterns, to provide recognizable yet unfamiliar material for observers in their mirrors. If watched from a frontal view, with no mirror, the repetition might seem excessive, however the altered setup required alternate compositional choices.

During the study, the musician played from a simple score, while listening to the live ECG click-track to guide her tempo. Rather than listening to clicks, the beats in the musician’s earpiece were indicated by recorded breath sounds, with which she played in relation. The arc of the choreography was designed with attention to ways in which breath and movement would impact the heart activity of the dancer, and therefore the click-track generated in real-time from the ECG. The music of the flautist provided an abstract form of biofeedback for the dancer as she moved, creating potential for a feedback loop.

Importantly, our goal is not to reproduce the heart activity of dancer in each run, which is impossible on a local level. We embrace the uncertainty that variations in cardiac behavior insert into the temporal relationships in the piece. We are interested in encouraging a live negotiation between the plan (e.g. heart rate = tempo prescribed in the musical score), and the live situation (i.e. variations in heart rate construct a new temporal relationship between the dancer and musician, every time the piece is performed). Enacting this situated awareness requires a particular quality of listening between the dancer and musician, to be discussed further in the section on Listening Techniques.


Listening Techniques

During the development of Study #4, we found ourselves confronting habits, assumptions, and questions about the relationship between the dancer and musician, as well as the dance/choreography, and music/composition. An important aspect of our overall project as collaborators is the design of interactive frameworks that operate through a fluid distribution of agency between performers, human and nonhuman. We are trying to avoid reductive identifications of leader and follower between performers, and with the media. While we learned a great deal from Study #4, we realized that we were struggling to articulate and actualize the quality of listening between performers that we have conceptualized. We felt the need to develop a pedagogical process by which to cultivate what we understand to be a relational or peripheral quality of listening.

We decided to investigate one very specific task: listening to and relating with a click-track. We developed a progressive series of listening exercises, in which dancers and musicians listened to a variable metronome, generated by computer software. Each time the participants listened to the 6-minute progression of the click-rack, we gave them a new directive. For example:

  • Observe the quality and behavior of your own awareness. If your awareness drifts, bring it back. How did you bring it back?
  • Observe the behavior of your breath as you listen to the click track, without intentionally altering it.
  • Breathe in time with the click track, initiating each inhale and exhale on a pulse. Make choices about the duration of each inhale and exhale, i.e. how many clicks occur per breath. You can also introduce breath holds, at the peak of the inhale or bottom of the exhale, to make a four part breath.
  • Repeat the above step, paying attention to moments when your initiation of a breath accidently falls before or after a click, due to the variability in the click track. Observe how you react in these moments, without intentionally changing your behavior.
  • Repeat the above step. During moments of surprise, exaggerate your reaction. How does this shift the tone or rhythm of your breath?

We experimented with the above steps while lying down, sitting, and standing, and with eyes open and closed, all of which made a difference in the quality of listening and focus. We also repeated directives, and moved forwards and backwards through the progression to refine the process. We questioned how much information to provide performers, versus what to leave open for experimentation.

In addition to breathing with the click-track, we explored shifting body weight in time with the click track. We provided directives such as:

  • Shift your weight from one foot to the other, arriving on one leg on a pulse. Make choices about the duration of each weight shift, i.e. how many clicks occur per weight transfer.
  • Repeat the above step, paying attention to moments when your shift of weight accidently falls before or after a click, due to the variability in the click track. Observe how you react in these moments, without intentionally changing your behavior.
  • Repeat the above step. During moments of surprise, exaggerate your reaction. How does this shift the tone or rhythm of your body? How does it change your relationship with gravity?

We then repeated the above series, with breath and weight shifts together. Additional steps in the progression that we touched on, but that we would like to explore further include:

  • Observing the coupling or decoupling between inhales and exhales with suspension and falling
  • Exploring different types of weight shifts, for example in isolated body parts, or travelling in the space
  • Having the musicians play their instruments with the click track
  • Having the dancers improvise movement with the click track

Eventually, the computer generated click-track will be replaced with the click track generated in real-time from the ECG. This will provide a unique type of unpredictable variability for the musicians. It will also provide a form of biofeedback for the dancers, and potential for a feedback loop, as they relate to the music.

What we are trying to emphasize is a relationship between the performer and click track in which there is not a follower and leader, nor a right or wrong event. Rather, we aspire to a relational awareness regarding the behavior of the performer and click-track. This requires directing attention in multiple directions, simultaneously inwards and outwards, but mostly, in between the many performers, within a context. The question for each performer is not: are you before or after the click track. The click track itself, whether generated by the computer software or the ECG, is not so special. Perfection in this scenario, i.e. the performer matching the click track exactly, would likely be uninteresting as a temporal texture. Cultivating this relational listening is a step towards building dynamic rhythmic textures, between the multiple performers, and between the movement and music.

The majority of our exploration of this progression was done ourselves, in collaboration with dancer Laura Boudou. We also facilitated a daylong workshop with five musicians, who gave us a lot of valuable feedback. We plan to continue along this trajectory through future workshops with dancers and musicians. It is interesting to us to bring dancers and musicians together for this exploration, to examine ways in which our disciplinary training informs our approaches to listening.