Digitizing Ancient Dance

On April 20 and 21 2016, members of the Oxford-Umeå research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers (ADMD), in association with Lausanne-based dance academy
Le Marchepied made use of Sliperiet’s motion-capture facility as part of our investigation of dance reconstruction. ADMD was established in 2013 to conduct practice-led research into the ancient Graeco-Roman performance genre known variously as orch?sis, tragoedia saltata (“danced tragedy”) or tragic pantomime. This was a form of solo storytelling through movement popular between the first and fifth centuries CE. Using evidence from textual and iconographic sources, we have been working with live dancers to re-imagine the art-form. In this phase of the project, we are examining the implications, both practical and theoretical, of digitizing orch?sis. What does it mean to translate dance in a post-human world? What does the re-embodiment or re-enactment of orch?sis signify in a context where the electronic interface has become a mundane means of mediation between dispersed human bodies? Can the digital be incorporated into the terpsichoreal?


Helen Slaney getting acquainted with motion-sensing gaffer tape in the company of Jim Robertsson and a Marchepied dancer.

On day 1, once the system was calibrated, each of the five participating dancers was captured performing a 4-minute piece which they had previously rehearsed. The pieces consisted of episodes from the Roman poet Ovid’s mythological compendium Metamorphoses, accompanied by recorded music (composed by Antoine Fachard) and a libretto in Latin. Using the OptiTrack hardware in conjunction with the Motive: Body interface – which was visible to the dancers as a projection throughout – introduced several new factors into their performances. The system has difficulty, for instance, differentiating levels of energy or tension in parts of the body, representing all movement as uniformly smooth and effortless. As there were no markers on the fingers, the hand gestures which are so important a part of the orch?sis vocabulary could not be distinguished. Weight and resistance are likewise hard to convey. Because the markers are attached to joints, subtle movements such as trembling cannot be read; such movements need to be rendered in a more explicit fashion if the system is to interpret them. We need to find ways to convert the electrical firing of muscular innervation into the electrical signals of the motion-capture system. Of course, much of this could be deferred to post-production, but another option is to develop effective translation techniques for meeting the medium halfway and adapting this dance form to make it comprehensible not just to human viewers but also to the alternative sensory faculties of a machine.

IMG_2584Anna Foka calibrating all 12 cameras in the motion capture system

Day 2 involved more recording, this time of some exercises pertaining to the expression of emotional states, and some experimentation with capturing the movement of cloth. The costumes worn in orch?sis, long, flowing robes which cover the dancer and enhance his/her plasticity, are essential to this form of dance, but cannot be captured by OptiTrack using conventional methods. We found that the cloth could not be designated as a “rigid body” with extra markers because they weighed it down and distorted it, meaning that only the swinging ends were tracked rather than a floating surface. The dancer could, however, wear a translucent veil over the capture suit without obscuring too many of the markers. It was important that the costume be worn as its presence or absence affected the dancers’ movements profoundly.

The next challenge for ADMD will be animation. We now have a gallery of raw capture videos consisting of green stick “skeleton” figures which we propose to convert into avatars of dancers performing in Roman theatre spaces. (If any animators – commercial or amateur – are reading this, especially if you have ideas regarding the digitization of cloth, please get in touch!) This workshop has been a fascinating exercise in what might be termed distributed reception; that is, relocating the cognitive act of processing movement from the locus of a human being to a (distributed) technological recipient. As such, it has provided a stimulus for rethinking the purpose, substance, and destination of classical texts pertaining to dance.


Sophie Bocksberger acquiring hands-on experience of the motion-capture software programme


ADMD Oxford: Helen Slaney & Sophie Bocksberger

ADMD HUMlab: Anna Foka

Technician: Jim Robertsson

Le Marchepied: Ilario Santoro, Judith Desse, Marie Lévenez, Ivan Larson, Léa Roméo

ADMD acknowledges the support of the Fell Fund, TORCH, St Hilda’s College, The Balticgruppen Foundation & Riksbankens Jubileumsfond


About Anna Foka

Dr. Anna Foka is an Associate Senior Lecturer at HUMlab. Her current research interests involve (but are not limited to) the relationship between classical tradition and contemporaneity, narratives of historical culture in mass media, and current perceptions of cultural heritage and historical culture. On her (very) spare time she enjoys playing computer games, discussing punk and science fiction archaeology, and reading retro entomology books.
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