How Are Pac-Man and “Revelations” Alike?
By Boris Willis
Why do many of the works by Mark Morris, Bebe Miller, Bill T. Jones, George Balanchine, Camille Brown, David Dorfman, Kyle Abraham, and other successful choreographers end up being so well crafted and compelling to watch? What do these choreographers do that other artists don’t? For years, as both an audience member as well as a choreographer, I have explored these questions and searched for elements that distinguish an exceptional work from a forgettable one. What I offer in this article is an interdisciplinary approach that explores the connections between dance and games that helps to answer these questions. How do games and dances both incorporate four characteristics that demonstrate the realm of possibility, the realm of predictability, and hard work? These themes -- simplicity, surprise, transformation, and repetition -- became clear to me when, as a choreographer, I began working in the field of computer game design. I spent many years bringing what I learned in my dance training to computer gaming. Now, I am looking at dance as a game designer and applying such game principles as the moment-to-moment experience, risks and rewards, and balancing. Examining dance as if it were a game and vice versa has allowed me to compare and ultimately explain these four elements and their sub concepts.
This methodology is useful not only for game designers and students of dance but also for audience members: ultimately it provides a framework for how certain experiences of gameplay can activate a sense of “flow,” as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and why some dances inspire us to get lost in the moment. Exploring the connections between dance and games provides a perspective that is useful for identifying a satisfying experience in both fields. Exploring the connections between dance and games provides a perspective that is useful for identifying a satisfying experience in both fields. Some will find this exercise meaningful, others may reject it altogether and I intend to revisit these concepts over time to see if they continue to support a viable framework.
Let’s look at the subcategories of hard work, realm of possibility, realm of predictability, behavior, and people watching. Simply put, games need to be challenging and dance needs to show a level of skill, endurance, or creativity that lets the audience feel that what they are seeing is the result of more than ordinary effort. The idea of “realm of possibility” means that creators need to establish what their rules are for a work and keep the work inside those constraints. Hard work in the case of a game means making me work hard enough to stay engaged without becoming so challenging that it makes me frustrated. Hard work in a dance means that it should look like more than a comfortable effort is being displayed. This can be as obvious as exertion or endurance, but can also be showing complex patterns and split-second timing.
In my work as a choreographer, and in much of the work I see, hard work and simplicity are often missing. Until recently I bought into the idea that it is the job of the audience to let go of their pattern-making processes as they watched a dance. I felt that it was an opportunity for the audience to enjoy the noise of seeing choreography for what it is or for whatever they wanted it to be. I expected them to magically stop making stories from my abstract movement exploration without telling them to do so. Unlike a game, I didn’t train them to see the work, but simply assumed that they could process how I designed human interaction. I no longer think this makes sense. While it is unfair to compare concert dance with a game that costs millions to create and has a staff of hundreds, there are concepts we can borrow.
Observing the body requires two distinct ideas that I call behavior and “people watching.” Because we are so good at reading people’s actions, we can become confused or afraid of behavior we don’t understand. Simplicity clarifies the differences between behavior and people watching. I define people watching as observing the abstract movement of the body, which excludes gestures or symbols that communicate specific ideas from person to person. When we are people watching, we know that the connections and judgments we are making are meaningless so we can easily let them go. For me much of the work of Merce Cunningham and Elizabeth Streb would fall under the idea of people watching. I define behavior as gestures and actions of the body’s expression that can be read to mean something to the observer. Behavior is when the choreographer infuses meaning into movement through gestures or expressions like a kiss, a slap, a hug or a laugh.
Because so much is possible when a dance or game begins, it is important to establish the rules of the world/space so that the context of the work allows the audience to suspend their beliefs. Simplicity is about establishing a “realm of possibility” for the work and staying within those boundaries. I am rarely disappointed when a dance begins because I am observing how the dancers are establishing the realm of possibility. The challenge is to stay within the boundaries and exploit the limitations that are established when the work begins.
Now let’s look at the main themes of simplicity, surprise, transformation, and repetition. We have all heard the phrases “keep it simple” and “less is more,” but how does simplicity work in practice?
Simplicity works well in both dance and games. This is not about simple versus complex. Works can be very complex and still fulfill the theme of simplicity as I define it. One such work is Trisha Brown’s “Accumulation with Talking Plus Water Motor.” Like a movie or a novel with several storylines, you piece the performance puzzles together in this very complex work that switches between different dances and different stories.
People understand the world through pattern recognition and we can become very frustrated when we don’t understand what we see. Audience members want to know and understand what they are seeing otherwise we wouldn’t have program notes, previews, reputations, and other clues to help us navigate the dance performance experience. In games, players want to know what they are supposed to do and they want to understand what their goals are. Players work to overcome challenges but they also need to feel like they are making progress. Audiences want to feel like they understand what a performance is designed to have them experience. A good game should, as Atari founder Nolan Bushnell says, be “easy to learn and difficult to master.” I feel that dance needs a phrase that says “easy to understand and hard to do.”
Let’s now examine the theme of simplicity through the game Pac-Man and Alvin Ailey’s highly popular dance, “Revelations.”
How Does Pac-Man Use Simplicity?
- Pac-Man is a maze game.
- Pac-Man starts moving and eating dots as soon as the game starts.
- Pac-Man gets chased.
- Pac-Man needs to avoid touching the ghosts unless they are blue.
- Pac-Man needs to eat all of the dots.
All of these elements are familiar and require no special training or reinterpretation to understand. Go through the maze, eat all of the dots, avoid all of the ghosts except for the times when you can eat them. Repeat until you run out of lives. Simplicity is being able to easily understand what you are seeing and what you are supposed to do.
Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” Also Uses Simplicity
- The words of the music represent what the dancers are expressing through their movement.
- Religious imagery and concepts are familiar because we see them on a regular basis.
- The dance looks like what people expect to see when they watch dance: graceful unison movement, high extensions of the legs, high jumps, and lots of turns.
Let’s explore simplicity in Yvonne Rainier’s “Trio A.” Rainer’s work has elements of simplicity in the moments when the performer walks, stands or jogs, emulating the concept of people watching for the viewer. However, the work quickly switches from people watching to behavior without developing either into a complete movement thought. It is a jarring combination of phrases similar to reading the nonsense phrase “she is jogging, lol and now she is vkmmkv.” The first is a combination of letters that have a clear meaning, the second is a combination of letters that have meaning but you have to know the meaning in order to understand it. The last part of the phrase is a combination of letters that look interesting together but have no meaning at all. I would interpret the sentence as people watching, behavior, people watching. So while it is a compelling way to put a sentence together, it is confusing and hard to understand without an explanation. This is not to say that everything needs to be understood but I feel that balance is important when creating experiences. Transformation and surprise happen constantly as the performer switches from people watching to behavior and this becomes the work’s repetition.
Here Is Where “Trio A” Loses the Concept of Simplicity:
- There is no behavior that replicates the movement of “Trio A.”
- We don’t see people moving in constantly changing ways in our daily lives.
- There is no music accompanying “Trio A,” which is a typical motivator for dancing.
As a trained dancer I appreciate the way the work makes my brain jump through the hoops of pedestrian movement and sophisticated dance. However, I mostly experience the work from the kinesthetic challenges of the surprise elements, which are strong. The almost constant transformation and “surprise” becomes repetition so those elements are strong in the work as well. You may observe that the work is simple because the phrases are super short. The work doesn’t follow the principle of simplicity, though, because of the sheer number of observable moments that switch from behavior to people watching. This is not a judgment as to whether the work is good or not or even to say that all works need simplicity, they don’t. However, I tend to like them better when they do. Simplicity is when the audience knows what your goals are for the dance and they can track your progress throughout the work. Simplicity is helping the audience understand what they are expected to experience.
Surprise is challenging to do in dance but easy to do in a game. Surprise is about managing expectations in part by creating them. It works like so: lead the audience to think they know what is going to happen; do something else that is in the realm of possibility that the audience didn't think of. That’s basically all you need for surprise to work.
Dances like David Parson’s “Caught” and “The Envelope” are based on surprise. “Caught,” for instance, uses a strobe light to help our brains create the image that the dancer is floating impossibly around the stage. “The Envelope” uses narrative elements, which show how an envelope is desired or rejected in ways that are humorously unexpected.
Surprise in a game is rather simple. A spaceship appears out of nowhere and begins shooting at you in Asteroids. Aliens move faster the closer they get to you in Space Invaders. Turtles dive under water while you ride them in Frogger. Surprise can happen quickly in games because they are constructed worlds with a vast realm of possibility.
So why don’t dances surprise us much? I think there are many reasons but one of them is theme. The themes of dances don’t vary much and even the wild and crazy themes are hard to maintain when they are abstracted. Abstract movement like a barrel turn to a roll on the floor looks pretty cool but it doesn’t have any meaning. You can put a barrel turn in a dance that is jovial, tragic, funny or somber. The realm of possibility and the theme tells you how to see the barrel turn. We see so many works based on the human condition in the form of personal stories of love or rejection, not fitting in, fighting back against society and joyous celebration. Surprise works when an experience is believable yet difficult to predict.
Both dance and games rely on repetition. Repetition as a concept can be quite uninteresting in a game, but this is where dance tends to succeed. Repetition is so important in dance that almost every dance form from ballet to Bollywood uses it. Repetition helps the audience understand that what they see is purposeful and intentional. It gives the audience a way to read the patterns and connect them together. Repetition needs support from elements of transformation and surprise to be effective. Repetition without transformation or surprise is just tediousness or what I call the “realm of predictability.” The realm of predictability is to be avoided unless it can be carefully employed for surprise.
Transformation is perhaps the simplest of the four themes. Get to someplace different than where you started. It usually comes before or after surprise but it can happen at any time. When done well it feels like an ah-ha moment, which is very empowering for the audience. I will explore this more in my description of “Suite From Appalachian Spring” later in this article.
In my experience, the four elements of simplicity, surprise, transformation and repetition can work within individual pieces or throughout an evening. I recently saw the Martha Graham Dance Company perform at the Center for the Arts at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. What the company did was truly a wonderful example of using the four elements of simplicity, surprise, transformation and repetition. This happened both on a macro scale and within each work.
Work 1 was “Cave of the Heart,” which is iconic for its story of Medea’s love for Jason in the Greek myth, its Isamu Noguchi set, and Graham’s definitive choreography. The story is told both in movement and in the program notes. This is a story of love and betrayal, jealousy and revenge, in an easy to follow narrative.
Work 2 was “Lamentation Variations.” It began with a video of Graham performing her work “Lamentation.” The video was followed by three variations contributed by contemporary choreographers Larry Keigwin, Richard Move, and Bulareyaung Pagarlava, which were performed live. This is repetition. The work evolves but it repeats in different ways and we end up seeing four versions of the themes of “Lamentation.”
Work 3 was “Suite From Appalachian Spring,” which transformed another classic work into something new. It too has program notes, but spoken text was recited from the letters written from Graham to composer Aaron Copland. The role of the Pioneer Woman was excluded and essentially replaced by a narrator. It was magnificent to hear how Graham described to Copland what the music should convey, who the dancers were and what they were to represent, and what she wanted the work to be for the audience. For the first time I could experience the work without having to put myself in the position of understanding the experience of the characters. I could fully embrace Graham’s version of a people and a time that is separate from who I am, with an experience that I could observe and appreciate.
Work 4 was “Echo” by choreographer Andonis Foniadakis. It used the theme of Greek myth as Graham often did but in such a way that was surprising even knowing the story. In many ways the abstraction of the movement in this piece worked because I knew the story. I was able to go where the choreographer led me confident that when Narcissus and Echo failed to embrace it was an intentional part of the story. The part of my brain that would have gone to “what is going on mode” instead went into “ah-ha, that is how it is being interpreted” mode.
These elements have been the anchors that give me a sense of why I enjoy or don’t enjoy a dance or a game. I can play a game or watch a dance and understand that it needs to transform or have more repetition. I can now look at a dance and decode its complexity and process ways it can have more surprise. The themes of simplicity, surprise, repetition and transformation are what I see as core to an experience and what I look to in order to understand what makes a performance or game successful. I can now ask myself: Was it simple or did I understand the intent of the game or the choreography. Was there something that surprised me or did something happen that is believable but not predictable? Was there repetition or did I feel grounded because the work developed and built itself on the iterations of what was possible? Finally, what transformed or changed through the developments in the work that helped me to feel more informed than when the work began? If one of these elements is missing, the work feels incomplete. This framework won’t necessarily solve the issues, but for me it can identify them and, perhaps, provide a path to creating a more satisfying experience for dance audiences.
Boris Willis is chief artistic officer of Boris Willis Moves, an associate professor of computer game design at George Mason University and the founder of the blog www.danceaday.com. He has performed with Liz Lerman/Dance Exchange, Streb, Jacob’s Pillow’s Men Dancers and many Washington, D.C.-based choreographers. Willis has an MFA in dance and technology from The Ohio State University, a BFA in Dance from George Mason University and a diploma in contemporary dance from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He is the recipient of the 2003 Kennedy Center Local Dance Commission and a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship in Choreography.
Photo: Trisha Brown, courtesy Trisha Brown Dance Company
Virginie Mécène in Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring," photo John Deane
Boris Willis, photo Alan Kimara Dixon
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