Article: Computers dance into a new realm


Computers dance into a new realm

Pam Dixon 28-Feb-1999


Bill T. Jones unfurls his sinewy arms into a dramatic arc, his famously sculpted body undulating as if it were water flowing along a curvy river bank. The dancer, naked except for about two dozen small, odd-looking spherical devices attached to key points on his body, hums quietly as he moves. His rumbly baritone fills the stage with a folk song that floats over the counterpoint of his gentle footsteps and quiet breathing.

A rapt audience of eight cameras and a computer workstation manned by technical wizards in a San Francisco studio record his every move via the 24 or so motion sensor devices Jones is wearing. With each move he makes, the devices send millions upon millions of impulses to the computer, impulses that are translated into the mathematical essence of Jones’ kinetic art.

But what is all of Jones’ work leading to? A human audience sits in an enclosed room in the Cooper Union in New York City to view “Ghostcatching,” a new multimedia art installation. The performance begins in total darkness as a live computer starts projecting high-resolution images onto a screen.

Immediately, a shimmering blue-and-white figure appears and unrolls its arms into a dramatic pose. The figure is a vivid, surreal distillation and expansion of Jones’ original motions. It appears to be a highly mobile, rich line drawing suspended in space, its movement unhinged from the constraints of gravity.

What does Jones think about his altered reality? “When I saw those points moving in space there was something uncanny about it,” he says over the phone. “It felt like me moving, but I was disembodied.”

Uncanny is the right word to describe the new artistic vocabulary that helps create the poetry of the eight-minute virtual dance. Watching the figure as it spins, dips, then replicates is mesmerizing. Audiences typically leave in a state of astonishment, wondering what it is they’ve just seen.

Was it dance? Was it cinema? Was it animated drawing?

“I’d have to say it’s a new form,” says Jones. “That was the revelation for me when I saw these reconstructed forms that were lines in space using my movement. And it therefore begs the question: What is this? Something that was spawned from me, or something of me?”

Whatever it’s called, watching “Ghostcatching” for the first time is a powerful, visceral experience. It has the impact of live dance with the extra punch of seeing the unreal happen. Ready or not, this virtual dance form opens up a whole new realm of artistic exploration, not to mention imagination.

Digital dancing

“Ghostcatching’s” creators, Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, are the principals of Riverbed, a multimedia art studio that also produced Merce Cunningham’s 1998 virtual dance work, “Hand Drawn Spaces.” Both works rely on human performers to create fragments of motion that Kaiser and Eshkar digitally edit into new forms.

So far, the reviews and feedback have been positive, despite the huge challenges involved in capturing and translating the complexities and nuances of human movement via computer. Other than battling against technical problems that naturally crop up in a project like this, the collaborators’ main fight has been to make virtual dance artistically relevant and human.

“When we took Bill T. Jones into motion capture, what we lost was the sweat, the facial features, and the muscles. The real challenge was to create a new body with the dancer’s motion,” says Eshkar, who created the visual design of the dancing bodies. “In creating a digital body, it’s almost like making a sculpture that will be animated by the captured motions of that dancer.”

Eshkar describes “Ghostcatching” as something akin to “carving the wind in 3-D.” Picture the image of the now-famous dancing baby that did the cha-cha on “Ally McBeal,” the primetime network TV show.

Michael Girard, president of Unreal Pictures, is the creator of the baby and the sophisticated, breakthrough software called Character Studio that made it move. It’s no surprise that he, along with his colleague Susan Amkraut, are also the programming brains behind Riverbed’s creations.

While Girard is just a little bit embarrassed at being known primarily for the dancing baby, he’s not at all chagrined about his role in bringing technology up to speed with dance. As a graduate student, he tried to interest dancers in working with primitive versions of current technology, to no avail.

He couldn’t blame them, because at the time there was a chasm between the technology and the art. “But today there’s this direct connection with using the body to create motion then using the computer to create choreography and digitally edit the motion.” The gap is closing.

When asked what’s next, Kaiser and Eshkar talk about their new project with Merce Cunningham, this one called “Biped.” ” `Biped’ uses live dancers plus projected virtual dances,” says Kaiser. The work premiers in April at CalPerformances in Berkeley and opens at the Lincoln Center in July. Kaiser and Eshkar, who will be at UCSD in late April to discuss the work, are thrilled.

It’s no wonder — “Biped” is the first major dance work that incorporates motion capture technology to make it to the exalted heights of the Lincoln Center stage.

Deep pockets

For now, only major dance companies have deep enough pockets to try motion capture. A single work can cost as much as $20,000, not including the cost of the computer equipment.

Regional companies, such as John Malashock and Dance, are experimenting with other lower-cost programs. John Malashock uses a computer program called Life Forms to digitally choreograph jumps.

“It’s something that lets me look at my discipline without limitations,” he says.

Girard forecasts that within the next three years, the technology will drop in price enough to be affordable for small dance companies and even individual dancers. Then it will be a matter of artists being brave enough to test the new art form for themselves.

“The technology is ahead of where people are thinking,” says Girard. “I’m really hopeful that it’s just a question of having more choreographers experiment with what has been the domain of special effects and traditional animators.”

It is ironic that an art form that relies on the human body to carry the artistic message — dance — would ever be detached from the body. Much like the android, Data, in the Star Trek series who constantly reaches for humanity, the new technologies, though detached, compel largely because they strive so hard to capture the impossible, the ephemeral nature of human movement.

Riverbed’s virtual dance lecture at UCSD is April 27; call (619) 534-2860 for more information.

Pam Dixon is a San Diego-based arts and technology writer.

Riverbed http://www.river/ Unreal Pictures (Creators of Character Studio) Kineti x (Publishers of Character Studio): Cooper Union “Ghostcatching” site: Bill T. Jones: erforming/dance/index.html Merce Cunningham Dance Company: