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Misnomer Dance Theater, Connecting People

Submitted by on 26 Feb 2010 – 10:03 PM Comments

Connecting People

Connecting People, Misnomer Dance Theater

Christopher Elam jumps. A 50-foot wall shoots out from his feet. Misnomer Dance Theater’s Director has the ground spinning beneath him. Structural forms emerge from his every movement, building a city through physical inspiration.

In the motion capture technology world, the rules bend. “In some ways it’s similar to what one might envision in their body while dancing. But the beautiful irony for a dancer is that you’re very much rooted in the reality of space: the length of muscles, how far you can jump. Only in our minds [can] we extend those concepts,” explains Christopher Elam, Misnomer Dance Theater’s Artistic Director.

His ten-year-old downtown dance company is on the pulse of technology. Bridging artistic genres, Elam collaborated with the multidisciplinary company Tronic Studio in 2006 to experiment with the digitization of movement. Motion capture – often referred to as mocap – has long been used in video game imaging and animation. Now dance is entering another dimension.

“Chris’s style is very much about the physics of dance,” says Jesse Seppe of Tronic. “He’s tweaking reality and…almost defying gravity. We didn’t want ballet or traditional dance. We were much more interested in composition and the experimental side of his work.” Seppe and his partner Vivian Rosenthal approached Elam with just a narrative idea for a mocap shoot. In the rehearsal process, they began to explore the theme of the creative process itself with a blend of movement and graphics.

Like any dance for camera work, the challenges were different than those in choreographing for the stage. The frame directs the audience’s eye, and actions must be repeated and adjusted to achieve the perfect take. It’s no one-shot deal. “You feel like you’re dancing with your ghosts,” Elam says of creating movement within an invisible space that would only become reality in post-production. In the animated piece, every move the dancer makes generates a new 3D building or element in a city being built. “If I’m choreographing a movement where I turn my head and a shape is supposed to come growing off my back, I need to know how long is that shape going to be. If I’m giving an impact of an action, I need to know whether to give a thrust or a gentle petering.” It takes imagination.

Dance and science bonded during the half-day mocap shoot. Elam and his dancers wore suits with multiple reflective markers Velcroed on their joints. “It’s not your typical costume. All the little silver balls fall off your body pretty quickly, especially if you’re partnering with another dancer and lifting them,” says Elam.

During motion capture, multiple cameras circle the room (known as the capture volume) to track the location of each body marker in space, explains Doug Fox, a technology consultant and blogger who has presented research on the topic at the Kinetic Cinema program in Brooklyn, NY. “Motion capture is so valuable because it’s an authentic rendering in animation of the actual movements of dancers.”

“The entire room is mapped out for the software so it can record the XYZ coordinates of the markers. Then the motions are digitized,” says Seppe. A skeletal outline of stick-like diagrams can be played back in real time to be sure the kinetics are recorded as fully and accurately as possible. The data collected is then applied to a character in the 3D software. In this case, it’s the dancer whose movements inspire the creation of other structures.

Initially, Misnomer Dance Theater’s project was set to be the opener of RES Fest (one of the earliest global digital film festivals), but the deal fell through when plans changed for the festival. Tronic Studio and the company are still looking for a final sponsor to help complete its last stages, but in the meantime Misnomer has had other collaborative projects.

In addition to being one of the first modern companies to livestream their performances online and pioneer arts marketing initiatives, they emerged in 3D yet again. Icelandic singer Björk’s 2008 music video, “Wanderlust” featured Elam’s choreography and dancers. While shooting, he coached Misnomer members Brynne Billingsley and Coco Karo through a tumbling sequence in front of a green screen. The final version is a rich visual of movement in an unusual setting.

Dance and animation form a cohesive relationship, particularly for Misnomer. The aesthetics that make dance enjoyable onstage translate well in the digital realm. So often, only ballet is viewed as otherworldly, but with motion capture even abstract movement becomes tangibly, and more engagingly, foreign.

“If you’re shooting mocap for a video game that has soldiers in it, you want to cast ex-military because they move correctly,” Seppe explains. “If you’re doing something that’s really poetic and using the body to speak as the voice, I think a dancer is the right person to look at for that.”

Taylor Gordon

First published in Issue 9 – Spring/Summer 09 - Arti$tic Reinvention, Poster Issue

[quickshop:Issue 9:price:5.95:shipping:2.00:end]


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