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Shifting Lenses: A Marriage of Dance and Technology

By Matt Chilton/ Animation/Dance
Matthew Chilton sits down with dancer, choreographer and video/multimedia artist Elise May to discuss the marriage of digital technology with the live body.

Dance and video have a long history, dating back to the days where film was solely a visual medium without sound, where movement was the main vehicle of communication.

Technology has gone beyond seeing the solo dancer in front of a video camera. Today it is possible to see the different ways in which technology and the live body intersect.

Dancer Elise May partnered with animator Paul Van Opdenbosch to bridge the gap between physical and digital and create experiences that are entertaining and innovative. Their research uses technology and the body in new and interesting ways to create an entirely new audience and performer experience.

Shifting Lenses

I was lucky enough to catch a video screening of documentation from Shifting Lenses, a solo digital performance installation by May at QUT’s Parer Place. The installation was an immersive, engaging experience that was unlike anything I had ever seen before.

I was unsure what to expect as I approached the screening, which could only be viewed at night, the darkness illuminating the projected images. What was projected saw May as a solo silhouette dancing in front of a shifting backdrop. There was a synchronicity between her fluid movements and the digital background.

Through a Masters by research at QUT, May has been investigating the use of technology and dance.

“We were feeding the data from my body into the animation process [to create] these beautifully abstractive sometimes geometric, fluid and twisted shapes…”

Collaborating with animator Paul Van Opdenbosch, May developed an experimental and embodied practice-led research inquiry that examined interdisciplinary perspectives on the moving image, animation, installation and interactive technology.

The process of collaboration with Van Opdenbosch allowed May to experiment with motion capture technology where she could see her form and movements from any angle, represented digitally in motion capture software. Opdenbosch then created animations from her movement data.

“We were feeding the data from my body into the animation process [to create] these beautifully abstractive sometimes geometric, fluid and twisted shapes and really abstract concepts started coming from the body’s movement,” she explains.

 

May using the XSENS motion capture technology

Shifting Lenses incorporated three experimental animations that used XSENS motion capture technology in order to create generative animation outcomes. Van Opdenbosch explained that the suit uses the “same technology as the iPhone. It knows the rotational plane against the Earth’s magnetic core”.

The performance experimented with the concepts of both analogue and digital, in incorporating content that moved both towards and away from technological input.

“For a long time I’ve been interested in film and video making and this kind of marriage of digital technology or video with live body in performance,” says May.

Ultimately, May created an environment where an augmented reality of merged digital and live worlds encouraged an experience of heightened presence and embodiment through an intimate shared space between the performer and audience.

The Concept

I was curious to learn from May how she developed the concept for Shifting Lenses. She explained that she wanted to explore screen-based and interdisciplinary approaches to the use of the moving image and digital media in live performance.

While developing a digital element, May was also conscious of not going completely into the realm of technology.

“Trying to move it in both directions, both towards the digital but also back away from the digital,” she explains.

This was clear through the use of both analogue and digital methods. For example, May used an analogue approach through constructing a screen-like space without the use of technology.

Using a tower of mirrors, May was able to create a chronophotographic effect (a set of photographs of a moving object, taken for the purpose of recording and exhibiting successive phases of motion), from video motion capture without any digital input. She explains that the mirrors offered a “splintered, broken down compartmentalised view of the body against a very organic, real, fluid moving body”.

May using mirrors to create a chronophotography effect without the use of technology

May using mirrors to create a chronophotography effect without the use of technology

She explains that the mirrors offered a “splintered, broken down compartmentalised view of the body against a very organic, real, fluid moving body”.

The splintered, broken down compartmentalised view of the body against a very organic, real, fluid moving body

The splintered, broken down compartmentalised view of the body against a very organic, real, fluid moving body – Elise May Shifting Lenses – Photography: Fiona Cullen

One of the other sections of Shifting Lenses that May worked on used a piece of software called E-motion. E-motion is a wire frame grid but uses an Xbox Kinect sensor, which uses infrared technology.

Van Opdenbosch explains that “the Xbox sensor uses a depth sensor, so it registers how far away any part of you is from the camera and kind of renders out this grey scale, white’s closest black’s furthest away. The system would basically take her silhouette and move things around it”.

The program tracks the body in space, which allowed May to physically interact with the digital technology in order to affect the shapes, which appeared on a circular screen during her performance.

May interacting with the digital background

May interacting with the digital background  – Elise May Shifting Lenses – Photography: Fiona Cullen

May was interested in creating a similar sensation utilising existing technology and the human body.

“I experimented with this interaction, I wanted to achieve the effect of the body dancing in a duet with technology,” she says.

May explains that the intersection of dance and technology is moving beyond the early stages of experimentation – a body in front of a screen – towards what she perceives to be more exciting, integrated experimentation where dance, video and technology meet.

A career in dance

May realised at a young age that she wanted to pursue a career in dance. “I was really drawn to live performance because of the energy and the tangibility of performance”.

This led May to study a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance at QUT. After which she built on her performance and choreography skills as a freelance or independent artist.

In 2008 May joined Expressions Dance Company, where she worked as a senior dancer.

Through both her work in the industry and her innovative research, May believes that the dance industry should look towards combining performance and technology.

“There’s more than meets the eye with this and it shouldn’t be viewed as just an outcome. Motion capture technology could be used as part of the training or part of the performance” explains Van Opdenbosch

The combination of Dance and Technology

The combination of dance and technology – Elise May Shifting Lenses – Photography: Fiona Cullen

May understands that digital innovations are changing the landscape of the dance industry very quickly. “I wouldn’t want dance or theatre to be left behind because it’s entrenched in a traditional setting, I believe we need to evolve as the context in which our performance exists continues to change”

Her exploration into the marriage of technology and the human body may just be the tip of the iceberg and it’ll be interesting to see how these two fields will intersect in the future.