Assistant Professor of Dance Kevin Williamson on Social Media
As a dancemaker, I am interested in the complex ways bodies respond to questions about human behavior and how choreography—the structured arrangements of moving bodies in space—can reveal and subvert social norms. In my current creative research, I am devising an evening-length performance called Trophy because I am curious about the ways people perform “success,” especially in terms of our evolving relationship to social media. This work started out as a personal inquiry: having grown up in a competitive dance climate, both within an academic system and beyond, I consider myself to be part of a generation of dance artists/teachers who encourage students to promote themselves and their work through various media outlets. Thus, my research and pedagogical approach have ruminated on how artists model their achievements in their bodies, on stage and off.
With Trophy, I wanted to make a performance that addresses the problematic ways in which social media culture mediates and displays productivity as well as exposes a diminished sense of privacy as a byproduct of our collective social construction of “selves.” While I recognize the powerful, political, and sociocultural effectiveness of digital media as a resource for social activism and connectivity, it seems young artists in particular are being trained to market themselves via Facebook status updates, Twitter posts, Snapchats, Instagram photos, and other social media content. Dancers on television shows like So You Think You Can Dance are rewarded for being technicians “full of personality,” and the branding of their lives becomes part of their artistry. My own participation in the hypermediatized production of dancing personalities made me hyper-aware of how I, too, am presenting parts of my life to different audiences. This dance grew out of my curiosity about what implications this participation has for my life and values.
I did not go on this journey alone. I began collaborating with video artist Cari Ann Shim Sham, experimental music composer Jeepneys, and dancers Barry Brannum, Jasmine Jawato, and Kevin Le, with these questions in mind: What are the versions of ourselves that we present daily? What would the redemptive qualities of failure look like if we inverted them—that is, what if we performed our failures as regularly as our triumphs? And how does the act of posing and also posting about moments in our lives—while they are presumably happening—affect the physical experience of simply being?
Together with our video and sound designers, we started exploring the physical and psychological experiences at play when we perform/share/post parts of our public and private lives in real time. Experimenting in rehearsal, we developed sequences of movement that utilized flow and then isolated body parts in rapid succession to highlight what, in our bodies, felt like a paradox of expressivity and self-monitoring. Then, as a group, we generated a list of random tasks like crawling, running, and eating, with instructions for them to be performed in ways that might appeal to audience members as they watched. While performing these tasks, we presented variations on being seen, constantly changing or reworking the approach by doing things like taking multiple real-time selfies or making attempts to “delete” parts of the performance midway through.
Currently, we are exploring the movements of digital interface live, projecting the choreography of two-dimensional space onto multiple surfaces as the performance itself. The video projection and sound score are integral to these explorations. Shim Sham films our rehearsals and manipulates the footage using various speeds and filters. She projects this imagery onto the walls of our rehearsal space to create a tension between the performers’ movement and the footage of them reconfigured. Jeepneys has been working on a score of found sounds and electronic beats that splinter rhythms in unconventional ways. Combined, these elements highlight a disjointed but virtuosic display of the body in time and space, suggesting the methods we employ to capture and share moments of our lives in real time.
One might ask, “Why use dance to explore themes of identity through social media?” For me, the process of making and sharing a dance is an opportunity to understand how we make meaning of our lives, especially our relationship to the cultural, economic, sociopolitical, and technological environments in which we live. The malleable nature of the body excites me, as does the body’s function as a sentient means of understanding our experiences and memories. For me, it is vital to study the complex and intelligent ways our bodies house, subvert, and adapt to our ever-changing environments. In continuing to develop Trophy, my hope is to discover how our relationship with media influences our perception of self worth and how we can continue to maneuver resourcefully with it.
Kevin Williamson is an assistant professor of dance. His work Trophy was first performed at REDCAT’s “New Original Works Fest” in August 2015 and will premiere in full at Human Resources, Los Angeles, in August 2016.
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