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Creating Electronic Sound through Movement

Danced Dreams:
Creating Electronic Sound through Movement


as always, my senior thesis, is an evening-length performance of contemporary dance and poetry. The piece premiered on Saturday, April 18, 2015 at Mount Holyoke College.


At its core, as always draws from the classical Indian tradition of dancing in direct addresses, of moving to converse with a deity who is physically absent from the performance space. The “direct address” as a peculiar connection between dance and dancer, dancer and a presence outside the dance, shares a similar structure to the poetic ode, to poems that address particular subjects outside themselves. Classical Indian dance, in its direct addresses, then, renders every movement danced an ode.


But while a classical Indian dance might address Lord Shiva, as always converses with ungodly things. Whimsical and exuberant, as always investigates the implosions that occur when words meet bodies. The four dancers in the piece compose intimate odes to the invisible moments that lie between them, from introductions to inhibitions to dreams. The movement-odes in this performance navigate text and movement simultaneously. Dancers perform original poetry live as they dance, excavating different relationships between the words they speak and the physical choices they make.


One night, early in my rehearsal process, I had a dream about a man playing a theremin. This was odd because I had never heard a theremin played live. I thought about how my movement-odes, because they were to be performed, were comprised of more than movement and words. Sound is, after all, integral to the way an audience experiences a dance, and listeners experience poems. It only seemed logical, then, to introduce into the piece the musical instrument from my dream.


Rehearsing with the theremin. Photo by Julisa Campbell


The theremin is a monophonic instrument that was developed in the 1920s by Leon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen). It is one of the earliest electronic musical instruments, and is made of two antennas, one to control volume and the other, pitch. To masterfully play a theremin is incredibly difficult. The sound emitted from a theremin is affected not by a player’s physical touch, but by the distance of the player’s hand from the antenna. There are no strings or buttons or fretboards; everything is invisible. (Here’s Leon Theremin playing his own instrument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5qf9O6c20o.)


The lack of physical contact in the playing of a theremin creates an eerie image—it gives the impression of a human body emitting electronic sound. Most distinct about the theremin is the direct relationship between movement and sound, where movement always produces sound. In as always, I wanted to experiment with using dance movements to play the theremin, to have the dance directly manipulate the soundscape.


The dancers and I played with the theremin in rehearsals, exploring what sounds it could make, and what movements made what sounds.  We figured out what pitch we liked, and tested the instrument’s range by positioning it in differing relationships to our bodies. I was entirely unsure of what kind of sounds would be produced at the behest of non-theremin-trained dancers.  And since none of us knew how to play a theremin, we had to find ways of making “interesting noise.”


In the final piece, the theremin took on a communicative role between the performers and the audience. I assigned it its own space, downstage-left, where it stood each time it reappeared in the choreography. The theremin was connected via a direct box to the theater’s sound system, so any sound it made was amplified through the audience. In the arc of the piece, the theremin became an utterly bizarre refrain to the more obviously melodic music tracks. It allowed as always’s visual and aural sensations to meld, enabling movement to create and consume silence at will.


Setting up the theremin for technical rehearsal. Photo by Julisa Campbell


As the dancers used gestures, and movements, and words to have direct conversations with the audience, the theremin’s sound interrupted them. These interruptions made it an object of curiosity, adding a small spark of humor to as always. In a discussion following the show, audience members were curious about the theremin. “What was that, even?”  someone asked. Several audience members also remarked on the comic presence of the theremin. One person said, “I was surprised that I was allowed in laugh in a dance performance!”


Of course, someone did ask me how I got the idea of using a theremin in the first place. So I had to tell them how my idea to bring a wiry, metallic, whiny, electronic instrument into a poetic dance performance had been born of a whim. The facts are like this: the laboratory in which I work does not demand justifications of theory and logic. Just as a poem is not built from linear thoughts but associations, the dance studio does not produce dances that add up in equations. In my laboratory, I made the language of as always, a language of quirky words, and strange movements, and stranger sounds. Not for science, but for dreams.***



***What will happen to the theremin, you ask? While I had a great time working with the theremin, and now firmly believe that everyone should have one, because theremins are so much fun, I am not going to keep it. Instead, I will be giving my theremin (we named him Leo, after his inventor) to the Mount Holyoke Dance Department. I hope other students will be able to experiment with the instrument in their choreography classes and in their own work.

Poorna Swami
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Poorna is a 2015 5CollDH Microgrant Recipient studying at Mount Holyoke College.