All posts by Kate Elswit

Choreographing with Spire, Part 2

In the first blog in this series, I wrote about our early experiments with using Spire prototypes in the dance studio. Recap: We wanted to understand how this technology might change the way we think about moving, by pushing us into less familiar relationships with the breath that is so intrinsic to what we do as dancers. And we were testing how we could produce new choreographic processes through this interactive technology by building feedback loops with the sensor data (among other things).


At the end of our first period of research and development, Megan, Ben, and I arrived at an overarching framework for the project and its public presentation: the Breath Catalogue. Think of an old European cabinet of curiosities, except in performance form. Here, instead of collecting knick-knacks and tangible things, we collect, use, and share palpable experiences of and data on the performers’ breathing. Under different tasks, our breath is unpredictable, messy, and varied. What appeals to us about the idea of the cabinet or catalogue is retrieving these different breath samples in new circumstances through the process of live dance. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to treat new performances as breath events that can themselves be collected as catalogue entries grow. Each performance pulls these various “curios” out of the catalogue and also adds new ones back in.


We are currently working towards our first evening-length performance in late July in San Francisco, but in March we were invited to Copenhagen for our first “catalogue entry.” My solo in Denmark was a performance-lecture: it started as a traditional lecture but ended up as primarily movement. The lecture and movement components were connected by two choreographic vocabularies that we have been working on in the studio: i) speaking as itself a kind of breath exercise, and ii) using dance to “agitate the container,” ie: moving to move the breath within the body. As the background for the first part of the performance, we projected a photograph taken during a walk in Copenhagen the day beforehand. While we had been walking, we recorded data from my breath. The lighting washout on the image correlated to sensor data saved from my breath during that walk, and in performance my movement also correlated to the changing image. Toward the end of the performance, we changed from this saved breath sample to a different visualization, one that was based on the data from my breath right then and there. I told the audience: “That was my breath then. And I’m saving this with you now.”

Back in the rehearsal studio, these materials return. The photo for example, from the corner of Borgergade and Kongens Nytrov, is part of a new scene. And we are still experimenting with how to mix saved breath samples like a DJ. If you want to hear about the Breath Catalogue performances coming up in San Francisco on July 16th and 17th at Fort Mason Center, give us a shout .


Cataloguing Breath Through Choreography

(first posted at The Life of Breath)

I am currently collaborating on Breath Catalogue, which is a practice-based research project that combines choreographic methods with medical technology to externalize breath as experience. Dance artists inherently link breathing and movement patterns in both creation and performance. Our goal is to expand the common dance connection between breath and gesture by visualizing the data obtained from the mover’s breath, and inserting this into the composition process to make the breath perceptible to the spectator.

In the first phase, my collaborators (artist/scholar Megan Nicely, and data scientist Ben Gimpert) and I conducted preliminary research and development using prototypes of medical breath monitors from the San Francisco-based start-up Spire. We wanted to understand how this technology might change the way we not only move but also think about moving, by pushing us into less familiar relationships with the breath that is so intrinsic to what we do. We asked how attending to the visualized sensor data could change the conditions under which we dance. (If you are curious about the genesis of the project and some of the ideas that we initially workshopped, I wrote a post for Spire’s blog back in September).

Now we have returned to the studio for a more protracted period of research. The objective is to build a choreographic ‘cabinet of curiosities’ in performance form, where what are collected and shared are palpable experiences of and data on the performers’ breathing. One of the things that struck me in the first stage was how unpredictable, messy, and varied our breath was under different tasks. What appeals to us about the idea of the cabinet or catalogue is the possibility to retrieve these different breath samples in new circumstances through the process of live dance. At the same time, it gives us the opportunity to treat new performances as breath events that can themselves be collected as the catalogue continues to accumulate and grow.

One of the key elements in our approach to Breath Catalogue is the possibility of breath as something that moves through our body — a quality that we move and that also moves us, but that also has a force of its own. At this point in the process, we have come to see three overarching aspects to our experiments with what we call the external agency of this breath. The first is the way that breath might create choreographic structures or games, changing the nature of the relationship between two performers. In this way, we might think of an unpredictable ‘breath object’ in the sense that the choreographer William Forsythe speaks about ‘choreographic objects‘. The second has to do with the ways in which manipulating breath changes the sensorial experience of the moving body. The body feels different with different breath techniques, even as the movement task remains the same. And the third has to do with building a theatrical environment based on magnifying and scaling the minutiae of breath experiences. Even though each of these three aspects intrinsically calls on the others, this provisional categorization is productive in helping us make sense of what it means to bring choreographic thinking to breath and share it with others.

As Breath Catalogue continues, we are excited to be a part of the Life of Breath project. We want to continue to explore how our expertise in this choreographic means of externalizing breath as experience can play a part in this larger project on the clinical implications of medical humanities research for respiratory illnesses.



Using Spire in Dance Choreography, Part 1

(first posted at Spire’s blog)


Breath is one of the primary means through which dancers learn to regulate moving bodies. It allows us to control our own trajectories in time and space, and it is often how we stay connected to others in a group. When I first approached Jonathan about the possibility of using Spire’s prototypes for a new choreography project, this was how I explained it. I told him that I wanted to find out what happened when that thing that is so intrinsic to what we do as dancers—breathing with/in/as motion—is externalized. How, for example, does the relationship between bodies change when breath becomes not only something that passes between two bodies, but something that can be visualized as a kind of third element in the duet?  My partner in crime Megan Nicely and I worked together from 2011-12 on The Animation Project, a piece that we showed in San Francisco and London. Returning to the studio together again this summer, we were joined by our technical consultant Ben Gimpert, as well as “Bip” and “Bop” (aka Spire prototypes B11 and B27) and a host of new questions.


We are currently in the research and development phase of the creative process. Our approach has been not to dive straight into “making a piece,” but rather just to begin by exploring what the Spire technology might ask of us as dancers and where it might push us to go that we might not otherwise. We have also brought in concepts of breath from our own physical training, including butoh, forms of yoga, and more traditional modern and jazz idioms.

We made ourselves light-headed a lot, both literally and figuratively. Coming from dance, which relies so much on ideokinesis (changing your body’s muscle patterns through imagery), Megan and I are both trained to think of breathing into the pelvic floor as different from into the upper back, or breathing into the sides of the ribs as different from into the pinkie toe.


While breath certainly shows up in many practices as a way to move beyond the individual self, this summer we have been thinking about how our breathing might materialize something bigger, perhaps even overwhelmingly so, as part of a stage apparatus. Working with sensors Bip and Bop has led us to understand breath as pervasive and durational, as change over time. In order to develop this experience artistically, we have been experimenting with ways to magnify the artifacts that breathing produces, such as sound and the displacement of air, as well as how to use the sensor data we obtain to change our environment and the conditions under which we dance.

More on these later, but a few of the ideas we’ve workshopped include:

  • Metronome: Repeat a phrase (a set series of movements). Each time one of us finishes the phrase, pause and take a reading of our breathing rate. That resets a metronome to which we perform. The breathing rate from the previous phrase determines the current one, and our action in the present sets the speed for what we will do in the future.
  • Averaging: Set Ben’s working visualizations to show data averaged between the readings taken from Bip and Bop. A game emerges in which we need to neutralize or erase the breath produced by one another’s movement. Another version involves inverting one sensor’s values, so that the goal is a form of unison breath that appears as close to stillness as possible.
  • Building a World: Projecting on walls and floor, develop a complex visualization that is either additive or subtractive. The movement is minimal, primarily designed to produce particular forms of breath. Different breathing patterns add (or take away) particular elements of the imagery, ultimately building an immersive installation environment using our breath.
  • Looping: Improvisation with leader and follower. The follower wears the sensor, the data from which is projected in real-time on the wall in front of the leader. The information produced by the breath and movement data of the follower determines the leader’s next movements, and thus the follower’s next movements, and thus the visual information that the leader next sees, and so on.

The way I understand it, Spire’s mission is all about helping people to understand the larger story of their breath. In our project, we are starting to take these initial stories as impulses to work in new directions.