(Choreo)-haptic experiments - Somatics and technology conference 2012

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Haptic device as choreographic space for non-sighted members of dance audience

(Choreo-) Haptic Experiments is a project currently under development, which explores how appropriate mappings of motion tracking data on haptic interfaces could support haptic devices which will enhance the experience received by visually impaired (VI) audiences of dance performances. This research is undertaken at the University of Edinburgh by a team of collaborators including choreographers Sophia Lycouris and Wendy Timmons, haptic specialist Lauren Hayes and motion tracking specialist Efstathios Vafias. The term ‘visually impaired’ covers the full range, from persons who have a partial visual impairment to completely non-sighted persons. This project involves completely non-sighted participants.

Can the experience of dance performance for audience members be based on anything other than visual stimulus? What does vision trigger in the viewer? Can we ‘see’ dance in other ways? Can we feel the effect of the viewing experience of dance without using vision? British choreographer Sue Hawksley developed the project Haptic Dance, as part of the final phase of her doctoral research (submitted in 2011, recently examined, and currently completing minor corrections), in order to investigate how dance can be communicated to individual audience members exclusively through touch by the performer. One of the reasons why she chose this method was because she wanted to find ways to communicate to her audience the invisible sensations of the dancers. American dance historian Ann Cooper Albright (2007) engages with the invisible from a different perspective. Referring to her research on the work of Loie Fuller, she emphasises the importance of kinaesthetic imagination in historical research which is informed by bodily experience. Obviously Ann Cooper Albright did not experienced live performances by Loie Fuller and worked on the basis of partial visual information, as available on film fragments and still images. She wanted to draw attention to some aspects of Fuller’s work, which were rendered invisible due to the ways in which her work was discussed by various writers of the period. French dance theorist Laurence Louppe (2011) discusses the importance of visualisation in understanding the dancing body and experiencing it, and the fact that there are different ways in which we can visualise it, which in turn frames our experience of the body, both as performers and audience. She asserts: “The [dancing] body will be firstly what we think it is, what it thinks it is, and where we accept it can take us” (p 228).

How important is kinaesthetic imagination in any encounters between dance and its audiences? What is the relationship between visual and non-visual information in the generation of kinaesthetic imagination?
There has been great degree of interest in kinaesthesia and kinaesthetic empathy recently, primarily through the research undertaken in the UK by Dee Reynolds in collaboration with neuroscientists, and the writings of Susan Foster in the USA. According to Foster (2011) the term empathy was introduced by German aestheticians in the late 19th century, who wanted to emphasise the physical connection between viewer and artwork. In John Martin’s (1939) interpretation, kinaesthetic empathy has an emotional impact on the viewer because it encourages dance audiences to respond kinaesthetically by experiencing internally the movements they watch, as well as their associated emotions. Neurophysiologists proposed the theory of mirror neurons, as a scientific explanation for this phenomenon and suggested that such neurons get activated in the same way they would if the viewer was performing the movements they watch. As part of her collaborative project, Reynolds (2008-2011) became interested in the cultural specificity of kinaesthetic empathy and, in her AHRC funded project ‘Watching Dance’, researched the experiences of dance audiences in relation to different dance styles and across a variety of viewers.

In the project (Choreo-) Haptic Experiments we are interested in whether non-sighted members of a dance audience can experience kinaesthetic empathy, if an appropriate haptic device can trigger their kinaesthetic imagination in relation to what happens in the performance space. One of the major challenges in this project is how to represent the dance. Should we try to provide a substitute of vision by transferring the image of the dance on the haptic device as it is? Or shall we try to communicate how this dance makes its audience feel? To recreate a live image of the dance available to non-sighted audience members via the haptic device is almost impossible with the current technologies, although this is all a matter of time, and some form of haptic holographic video format will be developed in the future. But we have chosen to by-pass the visual aspect of dance performance for the sake of getting directly to its sensation. Perhaps there is a way we can trigger the kinaesthetic imagination of our viewers without needing a technology which communicates the visual manifestation of dance.
In this project, we have proposed to concentrate on the dynamic qualities of dance, and we want to use the haptic device as a performance space in which dynamic events (equivalent to those in the actual performance space – but not necessarily visually close) take place, aiming at triggering the kinaesthetic imagination of the non-sighted viewers, which should allow them to empathise kinaesthetically with the performers. This is the research process through which the haptic device becomes a choreographic space and the haptic interface, which aims to communicate via touch, should be designed correctly to fully engage the user via their sense of touch. The haptic interface becomes the choreographic medium. What is transferred from the actual dance to the haptic interface is never the same, and this should not be treated as the negative result of technological inefficiencies. Rather the opposite, the non-sighted members of the audience, who tend to have increased tactile sensitivity, have their own way of accessing the dance, which is particular to the sense of touch, triggering kinaesthetic empathy through haptic stimuli instead of visual.

The (Choreo-) Haptic Experiments project aims to address the above problem and uses as a starting point Rudolf Laban’s ideas about the dynamic qualities of movement. The project is currently under development but we have already received useful as well as positive feedback by non-sighted users of different ages.

Cooper Albright, Ann (2007)Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loie Fuller, Wesleyan University Press.
Foster, Susan Leigh (2011) Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance, Routledge
Martin, John (1939) Introduction to the Dance, New York: Dance Horizons.
Reynolds, Dee. "'Kinesthetic Rhythms: Participation in Performance'.", edited by Elizabeth and Laura McMahon Lindley, 103-18. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2008. In Rhythms: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture.
Louppe, Laurence (2011) Le corps comme poetique in Macel, Christine and Lavigne, Emma (eds) Danser sa Vie : Ecrits sur la danse, Centre Pompidou, pp 211-230.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 23 Jun 2012
EventSomatics and Technology Conference 2012 - Chichester, United Kingdom
Duration: 22 Jun 201223 Jun 2012


ConferenceSomatics and Technology Conference 2012
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • haptic technology, motion tracking, choreography, visual impairment


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