Can Technology Make Live Performances Live Forever?
In the fall of 2018, my creative partner and I were presented with a unique opportunity. A San Francisco-based dance company, Lenora Lee Dance (LLD), was remounting its show Within These Walls, which was the group’s most critically acclaimed and financially successful show. This immersive, multimedia dance piece details the detention and interrogation of Chinese immigrants at the Angel Island Immigration Station during its operation between 1910 and 1940.
Having watched the 2017 premier of Within These Walls, my partner proposed to the company’s artistic director that we document LLD’s development process as they reproduced the show along with a newly created epilogue, Dreams of Flight. We faced two questions: How could we give people a behind-the-scenes look at a live performance piece, and how would we deliver this look to audiences?
The Lenora Lee Dance Documentation Project
Documentation and Liveness
The project, which we gave the totally-not-awkward name of the Lenora Lee Dance Documentation Project, was modeled on my early days of collecting DVDs. Perhaps you are of an age where you can remember the first half-dozen DVDs you bought and actually having the time to watch all of the behind-the-scenes materials religiously. How did the T-1000 morph into its victims? Wait … the hobbits being waist-high to Gandalf wasn’t a CGI effect? What the heck is forced perspective?
Although many people enjoy consuming entertainment and quickly moving on to the next movie or show, some love to explore, in depth, exactly how the artists created our favorite movies, music and TV shows. For this project, we wanted to find a method of providing this information to performing arts fans, but we didn’t see many models upon which we could build.
We found one potential model through conversations with the University of California, Irvine Libraries. Research librarians Scott Stone and Madelynn Dickerson introduced us to the JSTOR Forum collection management platform, which allows for easy digital publishing targeted at academic communities through either scholarly articles or the ARSTOR discovery platform. The typical use case for ARSTOR is a repository for still images, whether it be uploads of photography or scans of paintings and sculptures. Archives focusing on live entertainment are currently rare on the platform, but we did find a few examples of university theatres that had uploaded promo trailers and single-camera recordings of full shows.
ARSTOR provided an online venue for hosting multiple video clips with customizable metadata options. If you are fastidious in your personal data management, you may have used metadata editors like MP3tag to edit artists, track titles or genre labels on your music files. Although many common metadata editors only allow the user to fill in predetermined categories, ARSTOR offers the ability to add, delete or otherwise alter an existing category.
Building an Archive
UCI Library’s Stone and Dickerson identified existing Forum collections that were closely related to projects like Within These Walls. Using these collections as a guide, we were able to create such project-specific categories Choreographer, Animation Designer and Box Office Associate. One of the project’s primary goals was to respect the labor of everyone involved, not simply the dancers and director. These customization options, then, allowed us to acknowledge any contribution, no matter how small.
Although metadata isn’t a sexy thing to talk about, it is nevertheless crucial when building a database or archive. Stone and Dickerson tasked us with building a bible of naming conventions before we began producing documentation materials. To do so, we had to make a number of curatorial decisions. How would we name files? Would names be consistent regardless of whether the file was a video, audio recording or still image? Or, would different formats call for different approaches? The eventual collection would have a few hundred files, so it was important to lock down naming conventions early on.
Due to the number of items we expected to include, we ran up against the first major hurdle facing any digital storage system: storage space. If you grew up on Neuromancer or Strange Days, you know that by the year 2021 we were supposed to have interwebs capable of containing the entire consciousness of humanity. But, sadly, if you attempt to upload a file larger than five gigs to many online databases, you are likely to receive a “Does Not Compute” message.
Then we faced the overriding concern of how much total space can be allotted for a given project or database. UCI Libraries’ ARSTOR account is primarily allotted to university faculty to provide archive space for research projects. We got access for the documentation project because my partner is a doctoral student at the university. Ours was the first student-led project to use the platform.
As such, we were encouraged to keep the overall size of the project within reason. Stone and Dickerson didn’t want to install hard limits on the collection’s scope, such as a 500 GB cap. Instead, they stressed we use efficient file sizes in our work. As with the bible of naming conventions, we were tasked with selecting formats and codecs that kept file sizes to a minimum. Though video footage was shot in 4K, the collection consists primarily of 1080p renders that are optimized for streaming platforms. If a viewer wanted higher quality copies, we built a system to allow requests for the 4K copies directly from us. We’ll likely ease these restrictions as cloud storage becomes cheaper, but currently, the online reach of the collection outweighs the drawbacks of storage space.
Filling the Archive
With the overall design of the collection settled, it was time to turn our attention to actually documenting the development process of Within These Walls and Dreams of Flight. The dance company was in San Francisco, with the eventual performance occurring on Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, while the documentary film team was based in southern California. This distance meant that the team conducted many of the production meetings virtually. Although we’ve all become accustomed to Zoom meetings during COVID, this project was my first to rely heavily on telecommuting. We faced more than a few hiccups as we collaborated remotely, but the current ubiquity of tools like Zoom and Cisco Webex has largely resolved such issues.
Within These Walls was a site-specific, immersive performance held at the Angel Island Immigration Station. A large cast of performers navigated the Immigration Station alongside the audience. At key moments, the entire cast would come together in a single location. Most of the time, however, the cast broke apart to perform in separate areas of the station simultaneously.
As such, filming on-site rehearsals and performances was a logistical and technical challenge. The primary documentary film team consisted of two videographers, but with performers located in as many as a half dozen locations simultaneously, two cameras were not enough. Fortunately, even though we’re still waiting for our flying cars and personal jetpacks, we do have some sophisticated video cameras in our pockets.
In addition to the two primary videographers, we had a small army of stagehands following performers with iPads and smartphones. We’re not likely to win any cinematography awards soon, but this approach did allow us to capture most of the rehearsals and performances with production values acceptable for a research project.
Early in the project, we decided that we weren’t aiming for Hollywood-style production values. Admittedly, this was largely due to budget restraints (meaning we had no money), but we also wanted an unvarnished look at the process. My partner and I had previously produced a more traditional documentary on the 2017 run of the show, so we were keen to take a different approach this time around.
We avoided camera shots that zoomed in on performers as much as possible. Instead, we framed the performers within the context of the rehearsal spaces. When the show went into performance, the audience was foregrounded in the frame with the dancers moved into the background. Since much of the performance centered on improved interactions with the audience, the adjustments to the cinematography allowed us to place the emphasis on these moments of participatory dance.
A New Path Forward
Building a digital collection on ARSTOR provides supplementary resources that can be shared with broad audiences. The dance company now has a platform providing a deep look at their creative process for interested patrons and fans. This level of access promotes audience engagement beyond the limited runtime of a performance. A fan can relive a favorite moment, or a budding dancer or choreographer can peek behind the curtain to discover how one group of artists tackled creative decisions and obstacles common to the industry.
As an aid to academic work, ARSTOR has been invaluable. When presenting the project at conferences, those involved can direct curious scholars to concrete resources. Conversations now extend beyond Q&A sessions, giving professional networking more time to breathe.
The broad reach of digital platforms also encourages engagement beyond borders. At the beginning of the summer, LLD had arranged to have an international scholar visit to explore the company’s work. Extended travel restrictions due to COVID resulted in the plans being canceled. But, thanks to this project, the scholar can now explore Within These Walls and Dreams of Flight regardless of current obstacles.
Ultimately, any creative work is an exercise in compromise. The compromises may be self-imposed, or they could be due to outside influences. Much as the Lenora Lee Dance Documentation Project seeks to document the artistic decisions made by Lenora Lee and her dance collaborators, this writing seeks to shed light on the obstacles faced by the curators and filmmakers during the building of the ARSTOR collection.
If someone had approached me five years ago to document a large group of performers navigating the “Ellis Island of the West” on an island in the Pacific Ocean, I would have asked, “What’s the budget?” If you had then asked me to make it available to anyone in the world free, I would have again asked, “What’s the budget?” If you had then stared at me blankly, I would have then asked, “For love of the game?” But, you know, the tools are there now. You may have to channel your inner MacGyver, but the tools are there. And, of course, it’ll look great on your resume!