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SPA(S)M 3/4 : Emmanuelle Grach

The artistic residency blog

For his artistic research residency at IRCAM, Basile Chassaing reached out to choreographer Emmanuelle Grach to work together on motion capture associated with synthesis and composition processes. Grach is a performer and choreographer who founded her company Nevermind in 2009 after training at the Conservatoire de Paris with Susan Alexander, Peter Goss and Joëlle Mazet. She also worked with Hervé Robbe and his company Travelling & Co as well as the Ensemble Le Balcon, on projects around Peter Eötvös’ opera Le Balcon (based on the play by Jean Genet), and Stockhausen’s large-scale operatic cycle, Licht. We met her at a workshop in Studio 3 at IRCAM and took the time to discuss her latest project in more detail.

First and foremost, how did you come to collaborate with Basile Chassaing?

I met Basile through Hervé Robbe, choreographer and director of the Choreographic Creation Department at the Fondation Royaumont. I knew nothing of Basile’s work at the time, but he told me he wanted to include a choreographic process alongside musical and electronic creation.
I have already worked closely with musicians and composers who give pride of place to dance in their creative and performative process (especially with the Fondation Stockhausen and the Ensemble Le Balcon). This immediately appealed to me, so we started working together.

What attracted you to this project in particular?

What appealed to me was Basile’s system. He places sensors on your hands, which then influence the sound according to how they move in space. This piqued my curiosity and I wondered how to choreograph a piece with this system, which represents both an asset and a constraint.

The very nature of this project aspires to invert the music/dance paradigm (according to which, to put it simply, dance follows the musical narrative), right?

This is precisely what we wanted to explore with Basile. How do you come up with meaningful gesture that will also influence the writing of the music? One must not hold sway over the other but then again, you do have to start somewhere. Which means striking a careful balance between musical and choreographic creation.

Do you know of previous achievements (at IRCAM or elsewhere) in terms of motion capture used simultaneously in both dance and music?

I have been able to test other musical systems. For example with Michelle Agnes Magalhaes during a week of workshops at the Centre National de la Danse (CND) in Paris, where I assisted Michelle Agnès and Hervé Robbe in their exchanges with a group of young dancers.
I also met Jean Geoffroy and Christophe Lebreton at a choreography lab organised at the Fondation Royaumont.

How do you go about exploring this tool together? How do you tap into its choreographic potential?

The initial working phase with Basile involved testing the system in order to determine how it reacts to our movements and assess its sensitivity. We filmed our trials, supplying Basile with a database for his research and testing. I personally gleaned insights into the sheer range of possibilities the system enables, and ideas for integrating them into bodily movement.

The second phase involved making dramaturgical choices to imagine how to convey our ideas using the system. The system requires dancers to expend a phenomenal amount of energy and move fairly quickly, which prompted us to explore spasms and breathing as well as electric currents, the transmission of data and artificial intelligence.

The third phase (the actual creative stage) began during a residency in Royaumont, with dancers and musicians. We tested two different methods to tap into the system’s creative possibilities.

The first experiment involved doing what was needed to produce sound, i.e. moving hands in a particular way to make sounds. This led to a dialogue between the two dancers. We actually managed to identify each dancer from the sounds resulting from their movements, creating full-fledged characters!

In the second experiment, we started creating without paying attention to the sensors. Choreographing without heeding which motion produced which sounds. This was easily done because Basile’s music leaves plenty of room for improvisation and chance.

Are there aspects which especially appeal to you, fields that you would particularly like to explore?

We have been thinking about a way to work on speech with this sensor using artificial intelligence. AI fascinates me and I’m sure there are all manner of things to be tested with it!

What are your expectations in terms of practising your art?

As with each project, I take away new approaches and methods for listening and creating. My work is obviously nurtured by all the projects I take part in. Spa(s)m has enhanced both my musical ear and my collaboration with musicians and/or composers. Being able to witness Basile’s creative process has been an opportunity to watch and analyse the writing of a musical score and its development.

Interview conducted by Jérémie Szpirglas

Photo credits Olivier Allard