PhD student to explore what makes live performances special


The magic that makes a live performance or concert special will be put under the microscope as part of a new research project looking at how audiences and performers experience ‘liveness’.

Matthias Sperling, a contemporary dance choreographer and PhD student at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), will lead the artistic research stream for the €1.9m (£1.6m) NEUROLIVE project, which will see artists and scientists collaborating to study the minds, brains and bodies of performers and spectators during the experience of live events.

Matthias Sperling (Photo by Neil Wissink)
Matthias Sperling 

Over the next five years, Matthias will create four new dance performances for this research collaboration led by cognitive neuroscientist and professional dancer Dr Guido Orgs of Goldsmiths, University of London, and hosted by the renowned artist-led organisation Siobhan Davies Dance (London).

The research team will also include Dr Jamie Ward, expert in wearable sensor technologies at Goldsmiths, and social psychologist Professor Daniel Richardson from University College London.

“This project is so exciting and large scale – I can still hardly believe it is really happening,” said Matthias, who is in his third year of PhD study at DMU.

“I am thrilled that I will be able to continue working on the subjects that I am exploring in my PhD research, through a project that continues my collaborative work with Guido Orgs and my ongoing partnership with Siobhan Davies Dance.”

Matthias has worked closely with Siobhan Davies Dance through a series of collaborations and commissions since 2008, and has previously worked with Guido Orgs on a two-year research collaboration funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

His works are playful and disruptive explorations of dance performance. He investigates shifts in contemporary understandings of body-mind relationships and the complex wider implications that they have, partly informed by a critical engagement with perspectives emerging from neuro- and cognitive science.

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For his PhD, Matthias is looking at the relationship between choreography and embodied knowledge-generation. His practice-based research has involved creating and analysing a new choreographic work that reflects on dance performance to see what particular kinds of new knowledge are brought into being for audiences and performers through the experience.

“After being involved in dance as a performer, choreographer and frequent audience member for more than 30 years now, I’m realising that dance has always been my way of learning about the world,” explained Matthias. “I’ve become more and more interested in thinking about dance performances as generators of embodied forms of knowing.

“I understand knowledge-generation in dance performances to be something that can be an intuitively felt sensation, rather than necessarily a thought that is expressed in words.”

The NEUROLIVE project, funded by a European Research Council Consolidator Grant, will use theories from theatre and performance studies, mobile neuroimaging methods and artistic research in performance-making to study the live experience.

The researchers will look at the minds, brains and bodies of performers and spectators before, during and after the experience of Matthias’ newly created live dance performances, each of which will focus on investigating a different aspect of liveness.

They also hope to explore how liveness is shaped by social media and new immersive technologies like virtual reality.

NoHow Generator - Matthias Sperling
Photo by Camilla Greenwell of Katye Coe and Matthias Sperling performing 'No-How Generator' by Matthias Sperling

“It is incredible for an independent artist like me to be able to plan five years in advance and to have funds in place to support that activity,” said Matthias. “I’m really aware of what a rare privilege it is to have that, and I’m excited for my collaborators and I to make the most of it.”

As well as choreographing the four performances for the research, Matthias will work closely with Dr Orgs to deliver five week-long artistic research workshops hosted at the Siobhan Davies Dance studio in London.

The ideas and approaches generated within the workshops will inform the thinking and design of the scientific research stream, just as the scientific approaches will inform the making of the live dance performances. 

Beyond dance and choreography, NEUROLIVE will also explore liveness across a range of performance situations, including stand-up comedy, reality TV shows, online lectures, political rallies and live music recordings.

For more information about NEUROLIVE visit

Posted on Monday 17th February 2020

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