Onur Topal Sumer discusses collaborative artmaking

Photo Courtesy of Onur Topal Sumer
Sumer is poised behind a camera, her blonde hair pulled into a ponytail. Her gaze is looking beyond the camera at a greenscreen backdrop.

October 27, 2023
Volume 5 Issue 1
By: Jodie Jernigan

A self proclaimed former “bun head,” Onur Topal-Sumer jump started her dance career from a young age with rigorous classical ballet training. This foundation informed Topal-Sumer’s extreme dedication to the form, leading her to push through a major ankle injury during the early stages in her career. Ultimately, her repeated ankle injury colored Topal-Sumer’s journey, inspiring her to maintain a sense of creativity as she worked to keep the art of dance in her life.

A multifaceted artist, Topal-Sumer attributes much of the diversity in her artmaking to her experience in undergrad. She was accepted to a major university in Istanbul where she studied a variety of artistic disciplines including dance, arts and design, and technology. In 2004, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Irvine. On this, Topal-Sumer shares, “I had no American dream, no U.S. plans. In following dance, I found myself in Los Angeles.” 

Photo Credit: Osman Foto
Sumer dances against a light backdrop in a flowy black outfit with her right leg extended to the side. Her right arm reaches above her with a red scarf trailing from her hand. Her gaze is pointed away from her leg and she tilts to the left.

Prior to her time at UCI, Topal-Sumer’s ankle injury intensified, resulting in her receiving three surgeries in the span of one month.This caused her to get creative with her teaching assistant responsibilities, ultimately leading her into the world of screendance. Incorporating her love for technology and dance into one medium allowed Topal-Sumer to experience dance in a new way. Topal-Sumer shares, “screendance, motion capture, and telematic performance was a new opening for me to experience dance through.” Topal-Sumer continued to work heavily in both dance and film at UCI, blending her passion for dance and technology. 

Upon receiving her Master’s degree, Topal-Sumer moved to Miami for a brief time before relocating to Atlanta in 2007. Staunchly convinced she would only live in “the city of the Olympics” for three months, Topal-Sumer was hesitant to fully immerse herself in the Atlanta dance community. Topal-Sumer shares that the limitations from her previous ankle injury combined with her short-term mindset caused her to “stop thinking of myself as a dancer.” 

It wasn’t until Topal-Sumer started dancing with Full Radius Dance that her passion for the form was revived. Atlanta’s renowned physically integrated dance company, Full Radius Dance combines dancers with and without disabilities in the creation and performance of their works. Topal-Sumer felt a pull to return to dance and found Full Radius Dance and the company’s artistic/executive director, Douglas Scott at the right time. 

She danced, choreographed, and created video installations with the company for ten seasons,  and speaks fondly of her time with them. She says, “It was a great life school and was a life changing experience.” Topal-Sumer warmly shared how her time with the company helped shape her mindset surrounding the importance of collaboration. 

Photo Courtesy Onur Topal-Sumer
A crowded room of people seated on the floor are awash in a purple glow from a large screen upon which the Dance Camera Istanbul logo is projected.

In 2007, Topal-Sumer founded Dance Camera Istanbul festival as the co-director and curator. This international dance film festival works to bring together artists from all over the world through dance films. Topal-Sumer says “We have shown films from many Atlanta artists as well as 6 continents”. The festival hosts sister events in Atlanta and all over the world in collaboration with cultural centers. Topal-Sumer says of her mindset regarding the curation and direction of the event, “It’s never about me. It’s always evolving. Collaboration is key.”

Photo Courtesy Onur Topal-Sumer
Topal-Sumer experiments with a white VR headset and handheld controller. She is dressed in an open shirt-dress with a blue and orange batik print over a black tank and plue trousers.

In 2015, motherhood ushered in a new focus for Topal-Sumer as she began to emphasize teaching, creating, and working in dance film and technology over performance. The pandemic sparked inspiration for Topal-Sumer to jump back into the world of dance and extended reality (XR) and technology. She says, “With the pandemic, I was interested in finding the integration of how bodies dance and how technology can unite [bodies] with virtual technologies” In addition to the Dance Camera Istanbul festival, Topal-Sumer has also been working as the Creative Technical producer on an interdisciplinary interactive dance and XR exhibition project, “Ni Do To and XR Pilgrimage,” which just concluded. This project is a collaboration between Kambara+ a San Francisco based contemporary dance company, and Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts.

With collaboration at the forefront of her processes, Topal-Sumer emphasizes experimentation, play, and curiosity in her creative processes. While finding the benefits of emerging technologies within the field of dance interests Topal-Sumer, she stresses that technology does not replace humanity. She beams as she says, “It’s the joined forces, joined minds, and joined backgrounds that makes anything a true collaboration.” 

Photo Credit: AJ Reynolds
Jodie looks directly at the camera. She has shoulder length brown hair and is against a grey backdrop. 

Jodie Jernigan received her A.A. with an emphasis in dance from Florida State College at Jacksonville in 2020 before receiving her B.A. in Dance and B.A. in English from Brenau University in 2022. At FSCJ, Jodie danced with and managed their dance repertory company, danceWORKS. At Brenau, Jodie conceptualized and directed the annual cross-department dance on film showcase, “Poetry in Motion.” Her choreography has been selected to represent Brenau University at a variety of events and conferences, including the 2022 American College Dance Association Southeast Conference. Outside of academia, she served as an intern with Fly on a Wall in Atlanta, Georgia for their 2020-2021 season. In 2021, she was commissioned by Zoetic Dance Ensemble to create an independent dance film for their annual Mixtape Atlanta film festival. Jodie’s written work has been featured in Brenau University’s “Elixir” as well as having been presented at the 2022 Sigma Tau Delta convention. Jodie looks forward to continuing to become acquainted with the Atlanta dance community.

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