The way in which dance can exist at the intersection of art and technology can be directly linked to the early work of Thomas Edison, the Lumière brothers and many of their confreres. These innovators grappled with the challenges in the new field of “moving pictures” and advanced the field significantly. Going back a bit further, to consider yet another pioneer, the photographer Eadweard Muybridge created series of images that encouraged viewers and photographers to approach movement in a cinematic fashion.
In the dance field interesting advances have been made using motion capture (MoCap) technology, which records the motion of objects and people, and digitally transcribes movement. The data collected is then mapped to a 3D model, which then performs the same actions as the dancer. Throughout the 1990s a number of choreographers, including Merce Cunningham, Bill T. Jones and William Forsythe, worked in collaboration with digital artists such as Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, (whose research explores drawing, computer graphics, and human motion). They used new media to create a virtual landscape for dancing bodies, garbed in sensor-embedded Lycra MoCap bodysuits. Such interdisciplinary collaboration created innovative forms which brought dance to life in new ways.
Motion capture is, in essence, a process of subtraction. Infrared cameras have “eyes” for the reflective markers worn by the performers, but do not see the bodies themselves. Body size, sex and age disappear. With the subtraction of flesh and muscle, there is also a loss of the sense of effort, or weight, simply because the performing body has vanished, along with its facial expressions. So realism isn’t the goal.
In Canada, the Montréal-based husband and wife team of filmmaker Denis Poulin and choreographer Martine Époque have been radically recomposing and altering human movement, creating a body of performance that can only exist in virtual form. Both are founders and directors of LARTech, a creative laboratory dedicated to what they call “technochoreography,” the art of digital motion-capture dance. They taught technochoreography and video-dance from 1993 to 2006, at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
In 2003, they developed their concept of “dance without bodies.” The composition and realization of an eventual digital choreography, titled NoBody danse, required Poulin and Époque to have simultaneous recourse to traditional material and processes and unusual methods of choreographing coming from digital tools, including a palette of luminescent particles replacing the live interpreter as raw choreographic material. The duo has consistently sought to bring the art of choreography into the digital realm, transforming dance work for the screen. Their newest creation, CODA, an eleven-minute film co-produced with René Chénier (National Film Board of Canada) in collaboration with Marc Côté (FAKE Studio), will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 5.
With motion capture (MoCap) and particle processing, Poulin and Époque create a landscape of virtual dancers free of their bodily image (i.e., no body), in a contemporary reinterpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (which celebrated its 100th anniversary just last year). The filmmakers used the last sequence, the coda, of this revolutionary and complex musical score because it’s what they could afford. The score was written on the eve of the First World War and the first stirrings of the Russian Revolution. As such there is nothing safe or easy in the music, and this new film pulses to its asymmetrical and profoundly unlyrical qualities. Thematically, humankind in CODA is confronted with a seemingly perilous future — the shapes and approximations of the human are engulfed by waves of uncertainty. The luminous bodies walk, turn, run and pause, negotiating terrain, bursting into flames, rising from the depths and often disintegrating into dust. Metaphorically, the figures are lifted by the jagged, pounding tones in the score, marking the awakening of the Earth. Many musicologists have noted that the superimposed rhythmic strands create a musical maelstrom; but the slow harmonic qualities in the score equally enhance the energy and drive in the film. Stravinsky’s innovation matches well with Époque and Poulin’s filmic invention and the filmmakers’ approach in using digital tools in producing CODA.
Époque and Poulin have been especially fortunate to receive a generous number of grants, dating back to 2005, which allowed them to experiment with various techniques and treatments of MoCap and its generated particles. In addition, they benefited from a further luxury: production on CODA started in 2010 and finished in July 2014.
Poulin says that to create this film required “the establishment of a long and complex supply chain consisting of multiple applications.” In essence, MoCap markers attached to the bodies are optically recorded and converted to digital 3D files. The visual result of a scene can only be viewed after all stages of the process are completed. And if the result is unsatisfactory, either technically or artistically, the production chain, he says, must start from the beginning by rejigging a different combination of parameters to try to correct the mistakes.
One problem in working with MoCap technology occurs when dancers are in physical contact with one another. Even something as simple as brushing past someone can result in markers jumping from one body to another. In those instances, computers convert the gaps, or data, into something that can make sense to the eye, but that can result in some odd-looking bodies.
As Époque says, “The dancers do not have bodies, their environment is not realistic, nothing is material: only the movement, sounds, music and sensations merged into evocative images.” In fact, the filmmakers, in drawing on advanced digital technologies to offer a new vision of dance in cinema, offer a timeless quality to the imagery, very opposite to real performance. The engagement will be anything but shallow, Époque says, “What they will experience are many sensations and emotions.”
CODA appears in TIFF’s Shorts Cuts Canada Program 1, September 5 & 7, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox cinemas.