Creative Cognition in Dance


This project marked a collaboration between UCSD's Interactive Cognition Lab and Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, the premier neoclassical dance company in the world. Wayne McGregor and his company allowed a team of ethnographers to study them as they created their next piece, DYAD 1909, for the Diaghilev Festival in London.


7 months:


Team Members


The Problem

Our research objectives were the following:

  • to record and analyze the coordination of choreographic thought and action between choreographer and dancers during creation process
  • to visualize the evolution of choreographic form for the audience

We wished to discover more about the tight connection not only between dancers and choreographer, but also between fellow dancers and between these dancers and their environments.

The Process

Our large team of ethnographers split into pairs, and each duo was responsible for observing one dancer. During this period, each ethnographer took notes on the dancers' and Wayne's activities, with a specific focus on their assigned dancer. We recorded such events as instructions and directions from the choreographer and interactions with other dancers.

We supplemented these notes with video recordings of each rehearsal shot from six angles simultaneously and with audio recordings of the choreographer. The dancers relied heavily on notebooks in which they kept notes on their previous work in rehearsal. During interviews, we asked them about the work they had recorded in their notes, and at the end of the three weeks, we collected these notebooks and documented them. Finally, we had on‑camera interviews with each dancer multiple times over the course of three weeks as well as twice-daily interviews with the choreographer, creating a comprehensive data set of the initial creative process.

The Solution

After the make sessions ended, we consolidated our individual accounts of each day into a master chronology of the creative process.

We observed distributed cognition within the company, as dancers remembered and recalled newly created material collectively, rather than individually. Each dancer strengthened the collective memory, remembering certain movements, and cueing other dancers who in turn could lend assistance regarding other overtures.

We also noted that the choreographer had used three different methods to generate choreography. Each technique uniquely contributed to the final piece. We documented this discovery in a paper presented at DeSForM 2009.

In related work, our research videos contributed to the creation of an interactive installation, entitled DanceRail, in conjunction with three industrial designers from the Technical University of Eindhoven. This installation appeared at the premier of Dyad 1909.