Collaborative Takeaways

In closing, we join our separate discussions on access through multimodality, gesture, and culture through a set of shared takeaways that we want to highlight for digital writing scholars, dance scholars, and individuals working across disciplines in collaborative digital humanities projects. Although we break our takeaways down based on our key concepts, we recognize that they are always overlapping and mutually influencing, and thus our discussion of each concept individually often implicates the other two categories as well.


Technology plays a constitutive role in this collaborative process at various junctures of artistic and compositional process and production. A set of wide-ranging practices congeal within the term "technology." In this project, it is a continuum from historical modalities to contemporary possibilities as shown across ancient and medieval stone sculpture, embodied dance technique, historical temple architecture, 3D animation, motion capture technology, costume design, and webtext design. Technology is not just a tool or a means to an end. It transmits information while maintaining a constitutive role in generating that. Dance that combines in its embodied techniques sculptural stasis and architectural grandeur, uses the digital platform to deconstruct its constituents. Using motion capture technology, the artistic body is converted to its skeletal abstraction that enables a focus on parsing out the sculptural and the architectural in the technical elements of the dancing body.

In this process, the dancing body is itself affected with the computational techniques of mediation within its choreographic folds. The ability to see the dancing body from a three-dimensional perspective as granular 3D data has a visceral and kinesthetic response. It can be compared to looking at oneself dancing in the mirrors of a studio but not quite the same. The ability to look from the back of the dancing results in a completely different reaction in the artist, affecting the process of choreographic making. Choreography is inspired from the deconstructive potential of motion capture serving as motivation for new movement.

While choreographic making incorporates the digital, the webtext design also incorporates the body at the front and center. In Erin's design, Kaustavi, adorned in the Odissi costume while making an S-shaped curve embedded in a sculptural recess of a medieval Indian temple with stone postures complementing her pose, forms the backdrop of the home page. This page also contains 2D videos of live dance, skeletal abstraction of the choreography, and 3D animation adaptation of the same. Technology shapes Kaustavi's choreography and mediation as well as Erin's coding for the webtext design. It is not just a tool for transmitting and mediating the artistic product. Rather, it constitutes the artistic process, 3D animation, and web design. The compositional element of the webtext presents the technical and the artistic in theoretically astute compositions to deliver meaning-making processes in collaborative interdisciplinary experimentation across dance and design.

This multimodal process portrays the centrality of the moving body in its ability to coexist across sculptural, architectural, kinesthetic, and digital registers weaving in and through technologies of craftsmanship, movement, and digitality. The digital provides a platform to both creative expression and research into interdisciplinary modalities of composition.


Furthermore, this project calls digital writing scholars to think about multimodality in a new way, and to pay greater attention to all possible channels of communication—particularly gestural channels of design. Of the New London Group's (2000) five primary modes of meaning-making (linguistic, visual, spatial, audio, gestural), digital writing scholars have paid close attention to linguistic and visual channels, and increasing attention to audio and spatial channels. However, apart from attention to embodied literacies and modes of communication, gesture itself has been largely ignored as a significant meaning-making channel (with the exception of work by scholars such as Janine Butler [2018a, 2018b], Debra Hawhee [2006], and Sara Newman [2009]). Thus, these motion-capture videos challenge digital writing scholars to think about multimodal communication in a broader way, not only through the intense signification practiced in dance studies more broadly, but in particular through the highly codified gestural system of Odissi dance; the narrative worlds and affective states these gestures communicate; and the ways in which these gestural significations can be captured and remediated to write new texts.

A conduit to reframe existing modalities of orienting with research, digital mediation foregrounds access to implicit processes taking place in the creative arts. This is not a simple collaboration between a technical expert and a cultural expert. Rather, both Kaustavi (the dancer) and Erin (the designer) work towards a common goal: making explicit the technological, compositional, and choreographic choices that are usually embodied and implicit. Providing cultural and artistic context in an interactive and immersive capacity allows the user to have a deeper engagement with the dancing body—one that usually washes over the audience's perception in a concert dance setting. One feels and senses the culture in movement in its various adaptations in new media through its multiple points of entry and modalities of information dissemination, namely text, live dancing body, 3D motion captured skeletal movement, and 3D model synced with Kaustavi's 3D movement data. Erin translates the immersive aesthetics and pedagogy of the dancing body onto the cyberspace. The design foregrounds an immersive quality as the text and new media components are all embedded within the nooks and corners of the sculptural or the live body on the home page. Immersion is integral to the pedagogy of Odissi, the particular cultural form being represented here. Odissi is an eastern Indian dance form in which learning takes place in an immersive context. The disciple spends years in the teacher's house where pedagogy is not restricted to the dance studio. Learning takes place in helping the teacher in cooking, cleaning, and other household chores. The act of cleaning the dance floor with a broom used to be a daily ritual for Kaustavi that immediately centered her being and prepared her for the ensuing dance class. Such an immersive quality of the dance complements the immersion afforded by the new media representation. In this way, the digital becomes a conduit to engage with non-Western ways of thinking and organizing the world.


Showing the dynamic nature of traditional arts questions paternalistic claims of preservation by the computational realm. While it is true that the digital environment allows for reframing and reengaging of ethnographic experience of cultural contexts through their immersive and interactive environments, the affordances and constraints of the imminent loss in such exercises of mediation of cultural memory must be scrutinized before concluding the digital conduit as unproblematic. In discussing digital mediation of the Odissi dancing body, authors Ellen Cushman and Shreelina Ghosh (2012) resisted digital mediation at the expense of losing cultural integrity. Presenting a discussion regarding corporeal mediation—requiring a body-to-body transfer—as sign technology, they argue that cultural perseverance as the embodied mediation enacting spiritual and social relationships central to the dancing is "a potential other to digital preservation" (p. 266). Ghosh lamented how digital preservation mitigates the relationships imbued within the dance when her student instead of corporeally imbibing the aesthetics of expression takes recourse to digital emoticons—digital tools substituting the body for emotion. Cushman and Ghosh wrote, "When such a separation occurs, then, the cultural memory of the dance is compromised; the reason for the dance, the relationships enacted by the dance, and the need for the dance, all become mitigated by digital preservation" (p. 274).

Nevertheless, our project animates the dynamism of Cushman and Ghosh's theoretical maneuver of cultural perseverance. Culture persists and perseveres through the foundational practices of Odissi dance etched historically in temple sculpture as well as in the pedagogical transmission from guru to the Shishya (student). But, what possibilities remain in a non-hierarchical transfer between artists or between artists and audiences? How can one visualize that process of cultural transmission? Using pictures and captions, as we've illustrated in this project, one approach is to resignify the movement performed by digital avatars in real-time to audiences. Viewers can supplement their aesthetic visual experience with visual and verbal signification. Thus, by centering movement in pluralistic forms—live, sculptural, digital, verbal—the collaboration allows for multiple modalities to the embodied cultural perseverance. In this manner, this digital humanities experiment enables an interpretive and meaningful journey into the moving body by foregrounding both the dynamism and the integrity of digital cultural artifacts written at the intersections of contemporary and traditional expressive technologies.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this project has developed out of creative/scholarly dialogue between an Odissi dancer-scholar and a digital composing scholar both committed to exploring new ways of representing and performing knowledge through digital design. We have sought to preserve our unique voices and approaches in coming to this argument, knowing that we each make sense of these artifacts with the different resources of our scholarly traditions, and bringing these perspectives to bear on the dance data in new ways. In other venues, we will take a more traditional approach to theoretical analysis of these videos; in this venue, however, our focus is on the creative possibilities that can come from collaborative conversations in creating new spaces online for performing and discussing digital dance. As inspired by our different approaches, we move between performance, practice, and interpretation. We textually model the collaborative, interdisciplinary collaboration out of which this project has emerged, emphasizing our voices in dialogue rather than attempting to speak in a unified voice. With this project, we hope to open up new possibilities for webtext scholarship in collaboration across disciplines; new ways of thinking about designing for narrative access across multiple channels; and new ways of engaging Odissi dance in the context of digital media studies.