“Dancing Performance Generating Systems” – an article from the WM call

By: Pil Hansen


This article invites you on a simple, experiential journey into the complex mystery of dance works that systematically generate performance on stage. This praxis is situated on a lineage of task-based creation; it is brought to live through descriptions of two works by internationally recognized choreographers from Canada; and it is examined through a dramaturgical lens with the aim of revealing how the systems work and are danced.


Touch me
Two dancers undress and not quite naked they seek eye contact and approach each other. At close proximity they each retract into solo dances of twisting joints, reflexes, and muscle contractions. I remember Michael Caldwell rubbing his wrist against his shoulder blades while his chin tugs at his collar bone and his knees let go; not quite interlocked, Stephanie Tremblay-Abubo stretches her face and arms away and apart. Both dancers are caught in looping repetitions of the solo dances until his or her hand rests upon the other’s body, allowing the touching dancer to relax for the duration of the contact. Multiple cycles of these looped solos and moments of rest continuously shift the alignment of movements. The cycles come to a momentary halt when the dancers find each other’s hands and cautiously begin to walk together, in transition. This fragile union soon splits into another cycle of retracted solos and rest, and the full series of cycles and shared transition continues to unfold and evolve.

In my memory of this section of Crave (premiered in Toronto 2013) I am watching from a chair next to the choreographer Karen Kaeja[1] and I am facilitating her development of the piece as her dramaturg. My focus is on the dancers’ choices of when to touch each other and their implicit (mis)alignment of tempo, muscle tension, and movement. Each stage of developing, trying out, and adjusting the “rules” of the dancing are alive in my mind and I am assessing how our last changes affect the dancers’ choices differently from previous stages of the work. I am also paying attention to how their choices, in turn, affect me as a spectator: I notice what my attention is drawn towards, sense contractions of and relaxation in my core muscles, and register the competing emotions and associations evoked by the experience. The only layers of meaning that I am concerned with are general themes and the detectable logic of the system that the solos, rules, cycles, and series comprise. Layers of interpretation depend upon each viewer’s associations to personal memories of intimacy that are inaccessible to me, but will enrich and form large parts of his or her experience. The piece’s ability to trigger such associations and feed them into the system through our viewer’s perception is what matters.

I am sharing this memory because it offers a simple and clear example of how a performance generating system can be created, how it systematically drives the dancers to generate performance live, and what kind of invitation it extends to audience members.


I am using the term “performance generating systems” to name rule- and task-based dramaturgies that systematically set in motion a self-organizing process of dance generation. When creating such a system, the focus is not on the completion of a choreographic composition of movements, phrases, series, and interactions with fully set muscle intentionality, tempo, and markers of what takes place where and when in space and time. The choreographer and dramaturg are also not creating frames for improvisation of movement that is based on the dancers’ impulses. When creating a performance generating system the aim is to arrive at a set of shared tasks and rules that both divides and sharpens the performers’ attention while limiting their options and challenging them to make movement decisions in the moment. Fully set choreography or improvised material, like the solos in the Crave example, may be fed into the systems and used as resources to be processed by the dancers’ choices. However, the central principle of the piece’s dramaturgy remains the way in which tasks and rules generate interaction and movement.


Touch Rules
When creating the described section from Crave, Caldwell and Tremblay-Abubo were initially asked by Kaeja to privately write down a memory of being touched in a way they did not like. Without sharing their writing, the dancers were then asked to tell the stories of their memories in sounds and head and face movement. Later, a task of improvising and memorizing a short and soundless solo based on their telling was presented to the dancers. At this stage of the work I joined Kaeja in the studio and we began to work on systematic ways to generate interaction. We asked the dancers to loop their solos close to each other and they were given the choice to reach for a moment of rest through touch or walk together by holding hands at any point in time or physical (mis)alignment. A rule was that the moment contact broke, each solo would continue to loop from the point it had been paused. The system is simple, and yet the effort and attention involved in simultaneously making choices, looping solos, and pausing/walking became tangible. This effort positioned the dancers at a safe distance from the otherwise vulnerable source memories of their writing and it enabled them to partake in the compositional agency of the work. Moreover, it fuelled the work with the kind of living tension and attention that tends to die off when all aspects of a dance is set, rehearsed, and repeated night after night.


Task-based creation is not uncommon in contemporary dance. Trisha Brown’s work with gravity defying every-day tasks during the American avant-garde movement of the 1970s has inspired many contemporary choreographers (e.g., Floor of the Forest and Man Walking Down the Side of a Building, Berger 17-28) One of the descendants of this legacy is Meg Stuart of Damaged Goods (Belgium), who’s continuous work with “impossible tasks” resonate through the international market of professional dance workshops (e.g., a dancer is tasked to be in two places at once or to disappear, Reiter). Brown’s and Stuart’s tasks increase the dancer’s awareness and effort because the problems they pose cannot be worked through habitual and skillful responses alone, but demand examination and choice making. Although this characteristic is shared with performance generating systems, Brown’s and Stuart’s tasks differ because they are open to an infinite range of physical proposals. Performance generating systems add precise rules and parameters to tasks-based creation that focus the dancer’s attention on specific aspects of the work and limit their possible responses. The resulting coordinates are not typically used to create material that then is set as choreography; the coordinates and the movements they attract become the very dramaturgy of a composition.
Deborah Hay is an example of a choreographer from the generation of the American avant-garde who develops performance generating “scores.” Her manuscripts indicate a series of paired tasks, emotions, directions in space, perceptual orientations, rules, and challenges that the dancer is moved through and responding within over time (e.g., No Time to Fly). During the past two decades, William Forsythe of the Forsythe Company (Germany) has been building “modalities” of movement, including alphabets of different ways to draw, collapse, and explore points of connection between body parts with his company in Germany (Karlsruhe, Gilpin 166). When creating individual works, rules and tools have been devised to manipulate the dancers’ physical articulation of such modalities on stage (e.g., Eidos Telos, ibid, and Whole in the Head).


A more recent addition to this lineage is Ame Henderson of Public Recordings (Canada) [2] who develops performance generating systems with the intention of troubling hierarchies in dance. I have been following Henderson’s work since 2008, initially through scholarly observation (300 TAPES and relay, see Hansen with Henderson), then in research experiments with artistic practice (Acts of Memory), and lately as a contributor of dramaturgical insights (voyager). While Kaeja devises small performance generating systems as sections within larger and set choreographies, Henderson creates systems with groups of collaborators and as full evening works. The difference is significant because the momentary dramaturgical shift (from a set composition to a dynamical system with shared agency) that I have discussed this far is both a point of departure and a base condition of the collaborative creation processes of Henderson.

When creating relay (premiered in Toronto 2010) Henderson started out with a set of inquiries: How can one draw upon an archive of dances? Is it possible to dance collectively and without surrendering the individual? Can the classical concept of unison (i.e., synchronized movement) in dance be explored through such an approach? Over several years Henderson, eight dancers, two musicians, and the dramaturge Jacob Zimmer explored these questions through experiments, discussions, proposals, and adjustment of proposals that led to what the choreographer refers to as the vocabulary of a performance system.


Futuring Memory
While working on the problem of leaderless unison, they realized that just repeating learned material or copying another dancer’s improvised movements were not viable options as both required a form of surrender. A dancer, Claudia Fancello, suggested that each performer form a hypothesis about the moment after right now and realize it in movement instead of copying. In spite of ongoing adjustment, the differences between the dancers’ hypotheses make unison an impossible task and keep them working on the future. Thus the term “futuring” was chosen for the approach. What matters is the effort, the relationship between reflection and movement, and the fact that futuring dancers are working on unison together without surrendering the individual. When forming hypotheses the dancers’ bodies and minds are enriched by memories of choreographies danced in past projects. Aiming to work such individual experience into the collective space, Henderson and the collaborating dancers developed a series of techniques to recall and engage choreographic memory fragments. Initially they involved the usage of memorization and recall tools, such as oral description, written notes, and gestures that mark individual movements in space, but soon the group chose to rely exclusively on physical memory that can be performed in flow. Precise vocabularies of recall and futuring modes were developed; these included “scratching a memory”, “futuring with closed eyes”, and “futuring memory.” The first mode allows a dancer to perform very small and possibly unconnected fragments of a choreographic memory in an attempt to trigger a larger section; the second mode tasks the dancers to enhance their auditory, proprioceptive, and haptic perception by futuring without visual information; and the third invites members of the group to future the movement of a dancer who is recalling a choreographic memory. A dancer transitions from futuring to recall when an association prompts him or her and returns to futuring when the memory no longer presents itself. In performance, each section of relay was limited to specific categories of memories and certain modalities from the two vocabularies in order to structure the ebb and flow of small hypotheses and faster, bolder, and more dynamic guesses.


The tasks, rules, and memorized solos of Crave and the parameters, vocabularies, and movement memories of relay are very different and yet both examples deliver systems through which dancers generate performance in front of their audience. These systems are not perpetual motion machines; over time the generation will become repetitive unless new source materials are added. As the performers learn to master the tasks of the systems and they become able to anticipate each other’s responses a decrease of effort can render the systems predictable. In other words, if the dancers’ work becomes too easy for them and they continue to recycle the same sources, then the system loses its ability to generate new performance. Over time, the system thus has to respond to the performers’ learning curve with new source materials and increasingly more complex parameters, vocabularies, and rules. In turn the system becomes more advanced and the performers develop an incredible ability to divide their attention and remain sharp and responsive to the shifting coordinates (see Hansen for an analysis of this dynamic).


Implicit Revelations
Neither Henderson nor Kaeja share the recipes of their systems with their audience. Part of the systems can possibly be inferred while watching, but mostly spectators are invited to experience the dancers at work and allow their perception to be formed by the patterns of self-organization that arise on stage, the ways in which they gently challenge expectations, and the networks of association and possible meaning they evoke. Indeed, what has been shared on these pages is a window to a dramaturg’s confidential view on how performance generating systems are created, work, and danced.



Works Cited

300 TAPES Dir. Ame Henderson with Bobby Theodore. Sound Art by Anna Friz. The Theatre Centre: Toronto, 2010. Devised Performance.

Acts of Memory. Principal researcher and dramaturg: Pil Hansen. Collaborators and performers: Ame Henderson and James Long. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The Theatre Centre and The University of Toronto: 2009-2012. Research Based Practice Project.

Berger, Maurice. “Gravity’s Rainbow.” Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, 1961-2001. Ed. Hendel Teicher. Andower, Mass: Addison Gallery of American Art, 2002. 17-28. Print.

Crave. Choreography by Karen Kaeja and Composition by Sarah Shugarman. Toronto: Next Steps at the Enwave Theatre, May 2013. Dance Performance.

Hansen, Pil with Ame Henderson. “Processing Memory in 300 TAPES and relay.” CTR 145 (Winter 2011): 11-20. Print.

Hansen, Pil. “The Dramaturgy of Performance Generating Systems.” Dance Dramaturgy. Ed. Pil Hansen and Darcey Callison. Basingstoke: Palgrave, forthcoming. Print.

Hay, Deborah. No Time to Fly. Solo Dance Score. Premiered in New York, March 2010. Deborah Hay Performance Company Website. Visited Oct 8, 2013. Web.

Heidi, Gilpin. “Architectures of Disappearance: Movement in Research and Creation.” Re.searching. Ed. Lisbeth Elkjær. Malmø: NordScen, 2006. 164-69. Print.

Karlsruhe, ZKM (ed.). William Forsythe: Improvisation Technologies: A Tool for the Analytical Dance Eye. Revised Edition. Frankfurt: Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000. CD-ROM.

Reiter, Sonja. “Interview with Meg Stuart.” In Dance, dancersgroup website: July 1, 2010. Web.

relay. Choreographed by Ame Henderson (with the ensemble). Toronto: Harbourfront World Stage at the Enwave Theatre, April 2010. Dance Performance.

voyager. Choreographed by Ame Henderson (with the Toronto Dance Theatre ensemble). Toronto: Winchester Street Theatre, February 2014. Dance Performance.

Whole in the Head. By William Forsythe and the Forsythe Company. Frankfurt am Main: Bockenheimer, November 2010. Dance Performance.


Author Bio
Dr. Pil Hansen is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto where she teaches cognitive performance studies and methodology, dramaturgy, and arts management. Hansen’s current research projects, Performance Generating Systems and the SSHRC-funded Acts of Memory, examine layers of memory and perception in creative processes through interdisciplinary behavioral experiments and research-based practice. In the past, Hansen developed a compositional tool named “perceptual dramaturgy” and (with Dr. Bruce Barton) a cross-disciplinary methodology for practice-based research. Her research results have been published in the journals Peripeti, TDR: The Drama Review, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, and Canadian Theatre Review and the essay collections: Space and Composition, RE:SEARCHING, At the Intersection Between Art and Research, and Developing Nation. She recently co-edited two issues of Canadian Theatre Review on Memory and on Dance and Movement Dramaturgy and she is currently co-editing the international essay collection Dance Dramaturgy for Palgrave. Hansen is also a founding member of Vertical City Performance and has worked as dramaturg and manager of Scandinavian and Canadian dance, devising, and new circus companies since 2000. Current artistic collaborators are Kaeja d’Dance, Public Recordings, and Theatre Replacement.

[1] Karen Kaeja has been Co-Artistic Director of the Toronto-based Kaeja d’Dance with Allen Kaeja for more than two decades. She is recognized for her groundbreaking and award-winning innovations in improvisation, site specific, and community engaging dance. Her recent task-based creations are sourced in psychological contradictions and explore horizontal planes of movement and release of spinal control. Karen has been commissioned and presented throughout Europe, The Americas, and Asia. She has been artist-in-residence for the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival and is a featured performer in 20 dance films. Karen also teaches improvisation at the School of Toronto Dance Theatre.

[2] Ame Henderson has been Artistic Director of Public Recordings in Toronto since 2003 and holds an MFA from the Amsterdam School for the Arts. She is particularly recognized for her both creative and political commitment to collaborative modes of working and her relentless and complex artistic research into taboos in dance. Henderson maintains ongoing collaborations with artists from across disciplines and continents and her performance works continue to be researched and performed at home, across Canada, and internationally. She has been an artist-in-residence at The Theatre Centre and Harbourfront Centre in Toronto and is Associate Dance Artist of Canada’s National Arts Centre.



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