Transdisciplinary collaborations are at the heart of a university’s creative genius. But what makes them successful? For the How We Collaborate series, we ask collaborators to talk about the process of working together.

You expect to see three dancers on stage for a pas de trois like “Daedalus Dreams,” which premiered in Virginia Tech’s Creativity and Innovation District performance hall on Oct. 22.

You just don’t expect two of the dancers to be drones.

Harnessing drones' capacity to create a meaningful on-stage narrative alongside a human dancer was one goal of the collaboration among the trio of artistic faculty members who created “Daedalus Dreams”: Zach Duer, assistant professor of creative technologies in the School of Visual Arts; Scotty Hardwig, assistant professor in movement, performance, and integrated media in the School of Performing Arts; and Eric Handman, associate professor in the University of Utah’s School of Dance. 

As Handman’s former graduate student and Duer’s colleague, it was Hardwig who linked the three over their mutual fascination with incorporating new technologies into artistic performances.

Then Handman received funding from the University of Utah and invited Duer and Hardwig for a one-week residency in Salt Lake City in 2021, along with their new friends, two drones they named Andromeda and Betelgeuse. “It was at first Drone A and Drone B,” said Hardwig, “and then we were like, ‘This doesn't feel right.’ They became more like dancers and less like drones over the course of the process.” 

Duer, Handman, and Hardwig spoke before the premiere of "Daedalus Dreams" to talk about how their long-distance, high-tech collaboration thrived.

What did it look like in the studio in Salt Lake City as you started working together?

Scotty: Playing around. It was just a lot of experimentation. We showed up in the studio and didn't necessarily know what was going to come out of it. We had almost like an R&D phase to test the drones’ tracking capabilities, test their momentum, their sensors. The idea of them as wind sources like mobile fans is something that came out of the blue. At the beginning, we had been talking about, could there be something with Greek mythology involved in this? Because there was just something weighty about drones as symbolic metaphors of birds, or as the Furies coming down in judgment.

Eric: And surveillance too, as these sort of godlike figures that are watching.

Scotty: As soon as we discovered the wind element, we brought in a bunch of feathers. That set us off on this whole journey that integrated the Daedalus myth. For a while we were like, “Is this Icarus’s dance?” But then it became clear that this was Daedalus — his dance after the death of his son. 

Eric: We're not really telling the Daedalus story, but it is sort of this touchstone. 

It sounds like it was an evolution, with all three of you contributing ideas and meanings over time.

Eric: Exactly. I think for me, collaboration is about letting your collaborators flex, letting your collaborators really do what they do best and then seeing where I can contribute two cents.

Scotty: Oh, I'm flexing the full piece long. [Laughs.] I think we each brought a very unique skill set to the process. My work is very concerned with the senses, and I also have a queer body. Whether I'm working in digital space or in a mechanical space with an actual object, I'm really interested in the essential relationship of what it feels like to interact with a machine. Eric is someone who's very concerned about dramaturgy and has a great sense of timing. He knew what we should see more of and how that relates to meaning, which was a tremendous gift. Then Zach's gifts were a clear understanding of both visual and sonic space, and then as a pilot, a really deep understanding of how we interact with the mechanisms of whatever technological structure we're working with — sort of like an artist with an engineer’s mind. We all contributed those unique things, but at the same time we all came into it with a sense of openness and said, “OK, we have no idea what's going to happen. Let's experiment and play and eventually it'll take shape and meaning will start to happen.”

Eric: Complex outcomes can emerge from simple variables. And I love that because the complexity that I want to see is not something that I can think into existence. So every project is about transcending the limits of my own imagination.

Is there a division of labor among you three?

Eric: I feel like, in a way, this project is the vehicle for the collaboration. It's the collaboration that mattered to me. It doesn't matter what we're actually working on, I just felt like I wanted to be working with these guys. I have a lot to learn from them. I mean, as a joke — sort of — our division of labor is like, "These are the guys that handle all the technical stuff, and me? I sweep up the feathers."

Scotty: And give the notes at the end: “That was good, but feel it more.” No, I’m kidding. One thing that the three of us have in common is that we're all artists. We've all done live shows before. We kind of have a baseline of knowledge that we can share, and so those pieces of who’s going to do what kind of just fall into place. We've also all been in processes that have vague, nebulous, shifting boundaries and expectations. And I think artists are very comfortable with that. Where it gets a little trickier is when an artist and a scientist start collaborating. Weirdly, I'm not sure the scientific method allows for that kind of flexibility.

Scotty Hardwig, assistant professor of movement, performance, and integrated media in the School of Performing Arts, interacts with a yellow drone as an audience in the Creativity and Innovation District performance space watches. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

Behind a safety net, dancer Scotty Hardwig moves in a blur alongside a yellow drone. An audience in the Creativity and Innovation District watches.
Feathers litter the stage in the Creativity and Innovation District where Scotty Hardwig, a movement and media artist, dances under the watchful eye of a drone. Photo by Christina Franusich for Virginia Tech.

What does it feel like to trust your collaborators? 

Eric: I feel trust as a kind of enthusiasm and excitement that the project is in good hands. We have this very organic space where ideas can be thrown in, tried out, tested, discarded, accepted, and it's all kind of good, right? We're all invested in making a better and better piece. Some ideas really work and are doable. Other ideas we might shelve for a while. I've also just been thinking about, at this midpoint in my career, how amazing it is when former students become colleagues and collaborators. I think that that's such a profound thing, to be mentored by Scotty and Zach. 

Zach: Having history together really helps. In this collaboration, even though Eric and I didn't know each other, we both knew Scotty and had worked with Scotty several times for a duration of years. Generally, when you trust that person, you also trust anyone else that they're going to bring into something. It’s little social things too. In any relationship that you're working together collaboratively on, where people make space for each other to have an idea, maybe it wasn't the idea you wanted to try right then, but “Yeah, let’s do it.” When we come into the space as an experiment, as a lab, it's so much better, because there's no harm in working through these ideas and being accepting of what comes through it. 

Scotty: Over the last five or six years, I've been collaborating a lot, a lot, a lot. I think that's part and parcel of being a dancer and a choreographer. And I've had varying degrees of success with my collaborations. Some of them were amazing smash hits — I think this one was one of those — and others were a little more rough. Looking back on why they were rough, I think it was partially because the agreements were not clear going in. People had different expectations about what it was going to be. In any kind of relationship, when expectations and agreements get suddenly shattered, it’s like, “Wow, we really should have talked about that before we started this.”

Eric: Sometimes it's all the conversations that have nothing to do with the project that are sort of like the social glue. As a choreographer, when I'm with dancers, I want them in their downtime to be having those fun, playful conversations that I'm not really a part of, because that's the glue that creates the community. Any kind of conversation about other things than the project can bind people together.

Scotty: Yeah, joy. Joy glue. I think collaborations without joy, in my experience, tend to not go very well. If there's a sense of joy in the process, it helps people get behind [the project] and be like, “Oh, wow, this is really, really cool.”

What are you three talking about when you're not talking about a project?

Zach: Too much. Everything.

Eric: We nerd out on books, and, you know, talking about our students and our careers.

Are you ever like, “This is what I'm binge watching on Netflix?”

Eric: Of course. We were talking about "Black Mirror" last night, you know, and the robot dogs.

You’ve painted an idyllic picture of collaboration. Have there been any challenges that you've had to overcome?

Scotty: Not interpersonal. I think it's more like logistical. It's challenging to work across states sometimes.

Zach: The residency was amazing. A lot of this piece got made in a week last year. Then Eric joined us on Zoom watching the rehearsal space and giving some ideas. But if we hadn't had the week together in Utah, we wouldn't have been able to make a piece like this.

Scotty: Another thing that can be challenging, not in this collaboration but in others, is recognizing other people's needs as people. In order to show up 100 percent present and ready to work, I need time to myself. But a lot of times, that's not respected in our culture, where there's this belief that collaboration is being together for hours and hours. I’m moving away from this hyper-produced, mashed-together model of collaboration and thinking more about strands or tendrils that can part and come back together, like a jazz score. Different people need different things.

Eric: Something I thought about at the very beginning is, “How can this project serve all of us? How can this collaboration serve folks that are going up for tenure, or going up for full professor at some point?” It's not just this commercial product that needs to happen, but mindfulness of what people need to do their best work, to thrive.

Is there a secret to success in a collaboration?

Zach: There isn't one. You try a lot of different things, and you meet different people, and some things are going to work and some things won’t. When they don't, that's OK. It's OK for stuff not to work.

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