IN 1960, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline coined the term “cyborg,” defining the idea as a system that “deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.” Since 1960, the idea of the “cyborg” has gone from a scientific hypothesis to a metaphor for social-feminist theory, to a half-man-half-machine pop culture icon. But if we trace the “cyborg” back to Clynes and Kline, you’ll realize that the essentials haven’t changed much at all. A “cyborg” is still more or less a system or machine that helps an organism to adapt to new challenges or environments.
This evolution of the “cyborg” popped into my head as I was sitting down to write this blog post about last year’s ZERO1 Festival, which featured students from the Ballet San Jose School wearing some unique hardware of their own. In 2010, our students performed a series of dances at the ZERO1 Festival in conjunction with artist-choreographer Benoit Maubrey. Rather than traditional leotards and tights, our girls wore solar-powered sound-generating electronic tutus. Instead of dancing to recorded music, they moved to the sound of their own movement — each student wore a device on her hand that emmitted otherworldly frequencies based on the way she moved her arms.
Electronic tutus? Futuristic sound devices? What kind of weirdness was this?
It seems like ballet is generally thought of as a “classical” discipline, the kind of laced-up, traditional sport that appeals only to a rich, white upper class that has no sense of humor. One of the problems that ballet companies struggle with in promoting their craft is the preconceived idea of ballet as an old art form, as high-brow culture, as the kind of cerebral pastime that can only be enjoyed by the literati. (This is, of course, untrue. Anyone can enjoy ballet!)
Ballet does place enormous emphasis on discipline. Every line, every turn is tightly controlled. Even now, when contemporary ballet, jazz, lyrical and hip-hop dance have become popular dance forms in their own rights, classical ballet is still considered to be the foundation of choreographed movement. The very beauty of ballet is its emphasis on control, the incredible harnessed power of its dancers, and the sheer gutsiness of its choreography.
Like all forms of art, ballet isn’t for everyone. Some people think it’s a relic of times past. That may be true in some places, but in the diverse landscape of the Silicon Valley, we do ballet differently. The spirit of entrepreneurship and technology that thrives in San Jose also shapes the way we approach visual and performing arts. There is no better example of this diversity, this progressive thinking, than the students from the Ballet SJ School tapping metal rakes against a concrete sidewalk and dancing in electronic tutus.
In a festival geared toward transforming downtown San Jose’s South of First Street Arts District (SoFA), electronic tutus may seem weird and out of place. But artists are using technology more than ever to give traditional art forms a 21st century makeover. In the unending barrage of technology, some performing arts may need that extra push in order to adapt.
So the “cyborgs” on my mind when I started this post were the students of the BSJ School, who strapped on funky electronic tutus and learned some unconventional choreography. To what end?
Classical ballet is alive and well in San Jose and in many other parts of the world. But there is definite value to stepping outside the confines of tradition once in a while and using technology to explore a new environment: this shifting arts culture set against a technological backdrop that is constantly evolving.
With that in mind, do yourselves a favor and check out the video posted above. You can also see still photos of the performance here. Then, tell us what you think. Do you agree with the sentiments of this post? Do you think ballet needs to adapt? Or is it a timeless discipline that will survive any cultural shift?
Thanks for reading!