A general view of various ways in which virtual dance
can be understood is presented in the first part of this article. It then appraises the uses of the term “virtual”
in previous studies of digital dance. A
more in-depth view of virtual dance as it relates to motion-capture is offered,
and key issues are discussed regarding computer animation, digital imaging,
motion signature, virtual reality and interactivity. The paper proposes that some forms of virtual
dance be defined in relation to both digital technologies and contemporary
theories of virtuality.
computer animation, dance, interactivity, motion-capture,
motion signature, rotoscopy, telematics, virtual dance, virtuality
Ever since the motion picture recording of Loïe Fuller’s Serpentine
Dance in 1895,
dance and media technology developed an intimate relationship. Electric light not only made film projections
possible but also revolutionized scenography. Modern theatre pioneer Adolphe Appia
considered body and light as essential elements of the stage, but the body
seemed to disappear in Loïe Fuller’s novel art form, contributing through its
twists and turns to a dynamic light spectacle that entranced poets as well as
popular audiences. As Fuller animated
yards of silk on stage, the audience perceived luminous kinetic forms, dancing
light shapes, such as butterflies, flowers or flames. The interplay between electric light and
fabric generated a virtual display insofar as the perceived shapes were
ephemeral and immaterial in spite of the presence of a body more or less hidden
by the fantasmagoria it created. In the
case of the Serpentine Dance film, the projected image of the dancer, a
realistic illusion created by perceptual factors and specialized technical
apparatus, is arguably a virtual body. There
are of course various meanings and uses of the term “virtual” besides those
implied in these two instances, in fields as diverse as optics, aesthetics, philosophy, and computing. All bear on what we mean by “virtual dance,” a
term greatly informed by the technologies that make it possible.
Virtual dance can be understood in ways not
necessarily related to technology. Suzanne Langer expanded the use of the term “virtual”
beyond its conventional associations with illusory images. She wrote about the virtual character of
images, virtual space, virtual powers, and virtual memory. For her, an image is a purely virtual “object,” while a virtual image is the illusion of a space that is new; the creation of
something that never existed before.
Following Gilles Deleuze who revived the concept of
the virtual in philosophy,
Brian Massumi, Erin Manning, and José Gil have addressed topics such as the
virtual body, virtual gesture, virtual power, and virtual space. José Gil, for
example, writes, “It follows that there is no single body, like the “proper
body” of phenomenology, but rather multiple bodies. The body of the dancer, Cunningham’s body, but
in fact the body of all dancers, is composed of a multiplicity of virtual
Burt Ramsay has written on virtual
dance, drawing on Langer and on Deleuze’s development of Bergson’s ideas about
memory and imagination. In the dance pieces he discusses, “a dancer or dancers
take on the role of narrator, so that what develops is in effect a virtual
dance.“ In a similar vein, Steve Dixon writes:
But in an important sense, theatre
itself has always been a “virtual reality” where actors imaginatively conspire
with audiences to conjure a belief (otherwise known, after Coleridge, as a ‘suspension
of disbelief”) that a bare stage is in fact the courtyard of an ancient Theban
palace, or the 1692 witch trial courtroom in Salem.
For Pierre Lévy, the virtual is one of four mode of
being, along with the actual, the possible, and the real; furthermore, these
four modes are described as being almost always at play in a given analyzable
concrete phenomenon. Lévy summarises
their relation thus: “the real resembles the possible, whereas the actual
answers to the virtual.”
In new media, virtual reality usually
refers to the users” navigation in a three-dimensional digitally imaged world,
but can be understood much more broadly in relation to interactive multimedia
and digital networks.
2. Virtual Dance as Image
At the very beginning of the electric age, stage and
cinema can be seen as implying two different ideas of virtual dance and two
different types of images. In order to
understand what a virtual dance is in an information technology context, it is
important to grasp what has become of images, and how computer generated ones
differ radically from previous types.
We can classify images as either unmediated, “natural”
images or mediated, “material” images, granting that this is provisional and
simplistic. An unmediated, natural image
of a mailbox is the mailbox we see on the street. In the nineteenth century, a
mediated, material image of a mailbox could be a drawing, a painting, a
photograph, or a film of it.
In Fuller’s staged production, we are dealing with a
natural image, regardless of the fact that it is illusory. There are no butterflies, flowers, or flames
actually present, but a dancer who creates virtual shapes somewhat as a
puppeteer. In the case of the film, one
sees a material image, a represented image, an image whose support is tied to
certain technological developments characteristic of cinema.
From photography to virtual reality, mediated images
have acquired new and seemingly magical properties: they can be transmitted instantaneously from viewer
to viewer, be interactive, immersive, and so on. Recorded electronic images are unlike previous
images because the electronic image is not immediately visible on its material
support but only by means of specialized equipment. If you look at a film strip, you can find the
corresponding image of what is projected on the screen, but not with videotape.
Today, as we moved out of the analogical
electronic era and into the digital era, images consist of binary data. Analogical coding has been replaced by digital
coding, which can be processed by multiple supports. Computer generated digital images allow the
creation of characters onto which motion data captured from performers can be
mapped. In this sense, virtual dance
refers to the dancing of virtual characters, which are themselves computer
generated images, not truly computer animated, given that the motion data are originally
captured from a live performer and that these data are processed in ways that
can essentially retain its authenticity. In this sense we are not dealing with computer
animation but with computer aided animation. As we will see, the relationship of motion-capture
to animation is contentious.
3. Virtual Dance, Virtual Dancer,
Dance, dances, dancers, body: all are now often referred to as “virtual”
though one is not always sure if the term has an equivalent meaning in each
case. Virtual dancer and virtual body
can however be understood in terms of the relationship between iconic image and
It likely all started with CGI (computer generated
images) of animated characters. “When
the eight-minute short film Tony de Peltrie was presented to the world in 1985,
the eponymous character was widely considered the first computer-animated
character to truly express emotion through his face and body language.”
In those years, “virtual humans” or
“digital clones” were designed by Nadia and Daniel Thalmann for Rendez-vous à Montréal (1987),
another milestone in computer animation history. Motion-capture was not involved, but
characters in the likeness of Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart were
realistically animated in 3D. Synthetic
actors or synthespians animated through movement capture were then also in the
works at Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak’s studio. “Intrigued by the potential of motion-capture
to link natural human motion to our synthetic characters, we created Don’t Touch Me, a music video piece…in
which singer/songwriter Perla Batalla was optically motion-captured…to drive a singing
synthespian called Dozo.”
With motion-capture, we can sometimes recognize the
identity of a motion-captured individual through the kinetic likeness of the
virtual dancer. An example for this
would be Bill T. Jones’ dancing in Ghostcatching
and much of what comes under the heading “motion signature,” where realism of
image, image resolution, or even morphological likeness matters less. As E. de Aguiar writes: “Motion is a fundamental visual cue in human
perception and slight inaccuracies are directly noticed. Hence, even if the
rendering is perfect, the motion will still tell you that it is an artificial
Jones and his Ghostcatching
collaborators pose an important question regarding motion-capture: “What is human movement in the absence of the
body?” I will later on reframe that question to
whether or not the relationship between motion-capture stored as binary data
and its later computer use for animating screen characters can be likened to
that between virtualization and actualization.
4. Virtual Reality
“Virtual” became a buzzword associated with new
digital technologies in the late 1980’s, most notably with Jaron Lanier’s use
of the term “virtual reality.” In the following
quotation, “virtual reality” is broadly defined, in line with its multiple
present applications: “Virtual reality
thus seems like a catch-all field within the engineering sciences. It manipulates images that are interactive,
multimodal (3D, sound, tactile, kinesthetic, proprioceptive), realistic,
animated in real-time, and shared on computer networks.”
The European Center for Virtual Reality
defines it even more narrowly:
"Virtual reality is a
scientific and technical field using information technology and behavioural
interfaces to simulate the behaviour of 3D entities in a virtual world. They interact with each other and with one or
more users in real time, through pseudo-natural immersion via sensory motor
This definition corresponds to virtual reality as a
“place” where users can collaborate in various endeavors through their
respective avatars. As an art form, VR
(virtual reality) was designed in order to provide immersive and interactive
experiences in 3D simulated environments, which are not necessarily replicating
an existing physical environment but can be novel worlds to discover through
navigation. The corporeal quality of
immersion and the importance of the embodied presence of the user is often
emphasized in the artists’ statements, though the cumbersomeness of devices and
slowness and roughness of image rendering could impede the quality of the
experience provided. Since only one user
at a time can be immersed in it, these works were also presented as
installations, designed to be appreciated for their exterior appearance.
Legible City (1989) by Jeffrey Shaw and
Sitting on a stationary bicycle, the user can explore
a virtual city displayed on a large screen in front of her, according to the
directions she gives the bar handles and the speed at which she pedals.
The Virtual Museum (1991) by Jeffrey Shaw.
In this installation, the user navigates through the
museum displayed on a large screen in front of him depending on how he moves
his center of gravity, that is to say by impelling slight inclinations and
twists to the armchair he is sitting on.
Home of the Brain (1992) by Monika Fleischmann
and Wolfgang Strauss.
In this immersive installation, the user dons a HMD
(head-mounted display) helmet and a dataglove and physically as well as
virtually moves through an installation that comprises screens that allow
external observers to see what she sees.
Cluny (1993) by Medialab.
This work combines immersive VR and telepresence. Stereoscopic HMD wearing users can meet in a
simulation of the abbey of Cluny through their respective avatars, small icons
that each can move with their 3D mouse. The
physically distant users can also hear each other through telephone lines used
in parallel to the digital network connection.
Dancing with the Virtual
(1991-1994) by Diana Gromola, Yakov Sharir, and Markos Novak.
The immersion in VR is provided by stereoscopic HMD
and is described as one of five cumulative spaces along with the physical space,
the cyberspace, the telematic space and body space.
Osmose (1994–95) by Char Davies.
This installation consists of two spaces, one where a
user (the “immersant”) wears a HMD and a motion-capture vest equipped with
breathing and balance sensors, and the other where spectators watch screens
from which to see both the immersant’s VR point-of-view and shadow.
Other works, even more uncommon, were created for CAVE
(cave automatic virtual environment) or even necessitated full body datasuit
for the users to wear.
When virtual dance is understood as being related to
VR, sensors allow navigation through body motions, providing a more physically
and kinaesthetically engaging experience than clicking on a mouse while looking
at a computer screen. The type of
interface used determines to a great degree the sensorial quality of the
The preceding examples show that dancing in virtual reality is to be understood
as one of the possible meanings of virtual dance.
5. Overview of the Term 'Virtual
The meaning of the term 'virtual' when joined to “dance”
in a technological context can take many forms and exploit various properties
of computer images, such as can be inferred from artistic statements, research
reports, technical papers, historical accounts, press releases, and various
publications relating to staged works, installations, software programs,
electronic devices, networks (including internet), “interactive” DVDs, and the
rest. Johannes Birringer points to two different concepts of virtual in
relationship to dance as it appears on screens:
On the one hand, it is true
that video dance, as the precursor of digital dancing and web-based dance, is a
hybrid form, existing in a virtual space contextualized by the medium and method
of recording.…On the other hand, the impact of digital technology on the moving
image (video, cinema) is quite paradoxical, if we recall that the history of
fictional films as live action films is grounded in lens-based photographic
recordings of reality--actions that took place in real physical space.
It is indeed important to point out that digital technologies
allow not only non-linear editing but, through the use of motion-capture, to
dispense with an optical camera and therefore with point of view; the original
“real physical space” is erased. As we
move from traditional cinema to CGI cinema and motion-captured feature films,
the term “virtual” takes on a precise technological meaning wholly different
from that in Langer, Deleuze and others.
Birringer offers no definition for the term “virtual”
in his 1999 article, nor for the numerous associated terms he writes about: “virtual space,” “virtual dance installation,”
“virtual performance,” “virtual implications of interactivity,” “virtual environments,”
“virtual studio,” “virtual geography of potentially infinite computational
possibilities,” “virtual consciousness,” “virtual movement,” “virtual touch
with the eyes,” “virtual site,” “virtual concert,” “virtual reality,” “virtual
performance space,” “virtual body,” “virtual images,” “virtual-body
environment,” “virtual stage” and “virtual stage space.” In a subsequent article (2002), he refers to
the “contentious internet debates about emerging definitions of “virtual” or “digital”
which goes to show that these two terms were already considered equivalent. Throughout the literature, and even within a
given article, the term “virtual” is often used in place of “telematic,” “cyber,”
“web,” “intangible,” “quasi,” “unreal,” or even for all sorts of screen images, projected or
displayed, synthetic or natural. Within
the context of art digital technologies, the term “virtual” somehow works as a
wild card, given the conceptual and technological complexities of the field.
In discussions on virtual dance, the notion of
interactivity usually crops up, even though the term “interactive” is often
used in lieu of the more suitable “reactive,” that is to say when reciprocity,
mutuality, or feedback are not involved. Whatever the case, virtual dance can be deemed
interactive, as in Cécile Babiole’s DO
(not) DISTURB (2004),
an installation in which spectators are invited to “disturb the choreography”
by moving themselves in front of the screen.
Virtual dance can be immersive, such as in Steve Paxton’s video
installation Phantom Exhibition
which consists of five large screens showing video footage of Paxton and other
performers, as well as computer-generated images analyzing their dance moves. Surrounded by images projected on the installation’s
four walls and ceiling, visitors are presumed to be perceiving “with all their
the relationship between the human body and gravity, between the interior and
exterior of the body, and the structure of its bones. Virtual dance can also be collaborative
dancing in 3D virtual space, as in Collaborative
Dancing in Tele-immersive Environment, studied at University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Computer Science in 2006.
Though not expressly
presented as a work in virtual reality but as a performance / installation, Rebecca
Allen’s The Brain
Stripped Bare (2002) is
nonetheless described in reference to virtual reality. This work considers a
future where we live simultaneously in multiple realities, where the boundaries
between physical and virtual reality are blurred and thoughts are expressed
telepathically. ...Surrounded by a circle of screens the audience is free to
shift their point of view. Live
performers merge with shadows, projected images and sounds, revealing stark
human forms that move in startling and perplexing ways.
As for dancing in virtual reality per se, here is how Yakov Sharir, (dancer and co-creator In Dancing with the Virtual Dervish project,
see) described it:
So the zero gravity has changed
the notion of how dancers move in cyberspace. Not physical and human dancers, but
cyber-humans and cyber-dancers move differently. But still I have to compose that, so I have to
relate to that. And in another way, as
in virtual reality, as opposed to animation, then you, as a performer and as a
human, you are then immersed in the cyberspace with a helmet and a goggle. Right? And
you navigate in cyberspace with an electronic glove. Okay. So even though you are grounded in a physical
space, you are immersed in cyberspace, and you live now two lives; one in the
physical space and one that you are immersed in, which is cyberspace via your
goggles. Disconnected from the physical world. Entering the cyber world that is designed on
A 2003 Dance
revealed some of many ways virtual dance can be understood as it dealt
with telematics, “intelligent stage” (where detection of dancers’ motions
trigger various effects), motion-capture and animated characters; “data can be
used to manipulate “cyber-humans” in virtual spaces in order to apply authentic
movement quality to animated characters,” and the use of Life Forms 
More recent articles on virtual dance reflect what
newer technologies permit, such as the interplay of live dance and 3D
scenographic real-time animated virtual-environments (RAVEs). Interest in virtual scenography has been
growing and is apparently greater in theater than in dance. Virtual dance can even be understood outside
the visual realm from a kinaesthetic and haptic perspective, such as with the Immersence project at Munich’s Technical
Dancing is one of the two IMMERSENCE
scenarios for direct Person-to-Person interaction in virtual environments. TUM aims at creating a virtual dancing partner
based on the concept of Record – Replay – Recreate: First the interaction between dancing partners
is recorded. Then one of the partners
will be substituted by a robot providing the recorded haptic information to the
partner. Finally, the main challenge
will be to construct a haptic and visual agent which is realistically
interacting with the human partner.
Haptics, a research domain pioneered by Claude Cadoz
presents great challenges but corresponds to a need to expand new media beyond
the ocular and aural modes, and the development of more complex and engaging
interfaces than the usual keyboard, computer mouse or touch screen. That being said, what is presented elsewhere
as virtual haptics
in a stage performance context is in fact a visual illusion astutely fashioned
in order to give the impression that the dancer actually touches the projected
A mainstream conception of virtual dance has mostly to
do with motion-capture, physical modelling and animation techniques since those
technologies are increasingly used in cinema. Motion-capture can be traced back to the work
of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne Jules Marey. Cinema, as the term “motion picture” literally
expresses it, implies the capture of motion. Rotoscopy is a technique invented
in 1915 by Max Fleischer
and used by Rebecca Allen for Twyla Tharp’s Catherine
At the New York Institute
of Technology Computer Graphics Lab, Rebecca Allen used a half-silvered mirror
to superimpose videotapes of real dancers onto the computer screen to pose a
computer generated dancer for Twyla Tharp’s "The Catherine Wheel." The computer used these poses as keys for
generating a smooth animation. Rotoscoping
is by no means an automatic process, and the complexity of human motion
required for "The Catherine Wheel" necessitated the setting of keys
every few frames. As such, rotoscoping
can be thought of as a primitive form or precursor to motion-capture, where the
motion is "captured" painstakingly by hand.
Rotoscopy can be seen as a form of motion-capture,
while others would argue that it is an animation technique. It consists of extracting the movement of a
figure from a filmed sequence by means of sketching it on a transparent support
placed over each photogram. Computerized
motion-capture can be regarded as an automated way of doing what was previously
done manually through rotoscopy. “Motion-capture
is basically 3-D rotoscoping. If you accept rotoscoping as a form of animation
then you have to accept motion-capture.”
If motion-capture is a form of
animation, then motion-captured dance is computer animation, though one can
argue that the motion is the performer’s and not the computer’s. But since the computer is absolutely
necessary, motion-capture should arguably be understood as a form of computer
animation, which is why I would refer to it as computer-aided animation. Going back
to the debate over the status of rotoscopy, Maureen Furniss writes:
Certainly, mocap shares
with roto animation the close relation to a model’s form (human motion). The extent to which the two are related can vary dramatically, some feeling of the “presence” of a human
being still exists in most animation of these types. When watching a film like FIeischer’s Gulliver’s Travels (1939), it is of
course easy to sense that Gulliver is quite different in essence from the
little people around him; you don’t have to know that rotoscoped footage was
used to create him in order to sense that difference.
However, for reasons of its own, The Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences decreed in 2010 that “Motion-capture by itself is not
an animation technique.” As with rotoscopy so with dance capture,
so to say, some believe that motion-captured dance is not computer animation,
but “dance freed from the body.”
The main kinds of motion-capture systems are
mechanical, optical and electromagnetic, each with a given set of advantages
and disadvantages. Moviegoers are
familiar with motion-capture in blockbuster animation features, such as Robert
Zemeckis” Beowulf (2007) and James
Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Since such “films” are more closely related to
acting than dancing and involve capturing fine details, like facial expressions
and movements of fingers, the term “performance capture” has gained currency. Such high degree of image definition is
perhaps not necessary in dance, insofar as full body motion is sufficient to
convey it kinaesthetically, especially since the dancing character’s form can
be abstracted, as in Ghostcatcher or
in Cunningham’s Biped (1999).
In virtual dance provided by motion-capture,
it is not the lifelikeness of the form that matters, but the convincingness of
With motion-capture, one of the ways dance is virtual
is in that it can be seen from practically any point of view (that which a “virtual
camera” provides); from any angle or distance chosen by the viewer / user. A selected playback of it is but one
actualization among limitless others since several motion sensors strategically
placed in the capture area are used all at once to record the movement of
markers on the dancer’s body. Interestingly, motion-capture technologies
evolved from a system developed at MIT in 1983 called the Graphical Marionette,
and a low resolution but real time “computer controlled puppet” named Waldo was
introduced in 1988 by Jim Henson Productions (of The Muppets fame).
At variance with what a camera in video and cinema
records, motion sensors (or trackers) register only the location and motion of
markers, which are placed on the performer’s suit. Neither figure nor background are recorded,
those are to be applied later on. For
the capture session, several motion sensors are laid out in the dance space,
the more the better in terms of accuracy, so that all the markers on the body
can be tracked through time. The data
can then be mapped onto a physically modelled figure (i.e. virtual dancer) in
order to animate it, making it possible to view the dance sequence from any
perspective. Given technical and
physical constraints, a limited number of sensors and markers can be used; the
system may allow the computer to determine some values through interpolation. Nonetheless, the data are considered objective
or absolute in that they do not correspond to a point of view, as an optical
camera necessarily must in order for it to provide coherent images. A “virtual camera” can go through or around
the scene in ways that would be impossible on a physical stage; in
other words it is the user’s perspective (i.e. navigating) that constitutes the
virtual camera. In film and video,
camera placement and movements have of course to be established beforehand
unless they are improvised. With motion-capture,
one can decide afterwards where the virtual camera is placed and how it moves. In other words the camera movements can be
choreographed over and over, while the performance quality remains the same
insofar as it corresponds to a single take (capture session).
Motion-capture is the most objective form of dance
notation insofar as it does not rely on subjective appreciation and verbal
descriptions of individuals but rather on predetermined mathematical means of specifying
spatial coordinates along x, y and z axes at given moments for each marker. These data can be interpreted (inscribed, “read,”
and “performed”) cybernetically (human-machine communication) while previous
dance notation methods are based on symbolic representations, written and read
by humans alone.
Motion-capture data can be used to create new art
forms, and data visualization is one of many new hybrid art forms that
digitization makes possible.
One recent and outstanding instance of this
is William Forsythe and Ohio State University’s Synchronous Object For One Flat Thing Reproduced (2009) project,
first phase of the so-called Motion Bank,
a “repository of ideas developed through choreographic investigation.”
7. Motion Signatures
Motion-capture allows idiosyncratic qualities to be
recorded and played back on characters that are morphologically different from
their source; one could get a Laurel to move like a Hardy and vice versa. M. A. O. Vasilescu, a researcher and developer
in the field of “Biometric Computing using Perceptual Signatures,” published in
2002 an algorithm that extracts motion signatures on the basis of a person’s
gait (walking, dancing, or running) and that can be used to animate characters.
samples of Charlie Chaplin’s walk, is it possible to synthesize other
motionsin his distinctive style? More generally, in analogy with handwritten
signatures, do people have characteristic motion signatures that individualize
their movements? If so, can these
signatures be extracted from example motions? Furthermore, can extracted signatures be used
to recognize, say, a particular individual’s walk subsequent to observing
examples of other movements produced by this individual?
Insofar as the motion-captured corresponds to selected
points on the body’s surface, mapping those points on an avatar that is
morphologically dissimilar creates some kind of a kinetic aberration. The captured data is superficial, a body’s
movement does not originate from the body’s surface, and the data relative to
the muscular, skeletal, tissue components are not taken into account, as they
are in kinanthropometry. Body volume
data, body mass properties data, center of mass data and moment of inertia
data, of both whole-body and body segments are not accounted for.
To illustrate this problem, let us turn to the animal
world. A giraffe does not move like an
anteater, mapping motion data from one onto the other results in something that
is physically impossible because of the extreme anatomical and morphological
variance. Of course, the resulting
computer animation could be displayed on a screen, recognized as biological
per se, and perhaps the anteater will
be perceived as moving somehow like a giraffe and vice versa. But that amounts to kinetic teratology, such
creatures can exist in a virtual world, but are unlikely to be found in the
physical one. In her paper about both Ghostcatching and Biped, Ann Dils expresses the following critique of motion-capture:
But motion-capture only records movement in space and
time, omitting any direct indication of flow (the relative tension or
relaxation of muscles) or changes of weight (our relationship to gravity). In a live mover, flow would show up on the
surface of the body, as the dancer tensed or eased muscles. Weight changes show up in the thousands of
accommodations movers make in their muscles and skeletons as they drop into or
overcome the force of gravity or interact with other people or objects. Motion-capture sensors record the motion of a
finite number of points, not really the whole body, so some of the pliancy and
articulateness of the body is lost.
Contemporary research in Japan shows that
quantification of dance movement can be more comprehensive than with the usual motion-capture
protocols when it combines optical motion data and biophysical information.
According to Dick Tomasovic, Loïe Fuller did not wish
to be filmed dancing La Danse Serpentine
because she sensed that her dance could not bear it. Her work on light and
movement was somehow essentially too choreographic to be cinematographed. As a new type of show resting on the advent of
electric lighting, and full participant in the dream of a revolutionary
scenography formulated by modern stage and staging theorists, the Serpentine
Dance presented danced movement as a disembodied energy going beyond the
defining boundaries of the human body, even annihilating the idea of
corporeality, transforming stage presence into a pure animated image.
Indeed, when one looks at the 30 second film featuring
Annabelle More, one cannot fully understand what the fuss was all about. Of course the Parisian luminaries were not
raving about the Edison Company film but about Fuller’s stage performance,
which technically speaking could not have been filmed anyhow since shoots had
to be done outside, in the blazing sun, given that films were not light
sensitive enough for indoor scenes with artificial lighting.
Sally Banes did a lot to rescue Fuller from the
oblivion of forgetfulness in which she fell for decades after her death. Not only did Fuller begin to lay the
groundwork for modern dance before Isadora Duncan and others, but also “made
radical changes in art dance [that] would remain latent until the 1960s.”
Many dance historians had not considered
her as a “real” dancer nor her work to be “dance.” Perhaps history is repeating itself insofar as
appreciation of virtual dance is concerned.
9. Virtual Dance as Motion-Captured Dance
If motion-capture through rotoscopy is not animation,
then neither is motion-capture with digital technology. Motion-capture should be granted an autonomous
ontological status; after all, it does make virtual performing possible. Kevin De Spain asks three seemingly important
questions regarding the ontology of dance as dance is transformed by digital
[S]hould a motion-captured documentation of an existing live, human
dance (later viewed on computer as performed by digital dancers) also be considered
a dance?.…Why not simply reach out welcoming arms to encompass all movement
under the aegis of dance? Why should the
technology affect the ontology if movement is the essence of the work? I have personally argued for what might be
called a "medium- based" (as opposed to a movement-based) criteria
for parsing the dance from the dance-related, because film and video and
graphical computers have as much claim to being movement-based media as does
Surely virtual dance must be conceptualized in a way
that distinguishes it from animation film, kinetic art, robotics and so on. During the 1990s, the term ‘virtual’ became
fashionable and began to be applied retrospectively to earlier media, as I did
earlier in my introduction. While it is
arguably legitimate to claim that a telephone conversation takes place in a
virtual world of some sort or that the interlocutors are virtually present to
each other, it remains that what one means by virtual in a context that could
be contemporary with Alexander Graham Bell is wholly different from what it can
mean in the digital age. Equating
telematic with virtual reveals in some cases a confusion of the spatiotemporal
configurations that technologies foster, those where distance is abolished with
those where time is abolished. In the actualization of the virtual according to
navigational preferences, as is the case with virtual reality and motion-captured
performances, the stored data are accessed and deployed according to a
timeline, an ordered succession of configurations or events, in other words, an
instance or an effectuation. The real time
of a telephone conversation or of a telematic dance performance is not the real
time of computer processing.
We can only conjecture about what Deleuze would have
had to say about virtual dance and motion-capture, but as Mark Poster states, “…Deleuze did not theorise
technology. Even worse from the
standpoint of investigating new media, Deleuze not only does not theorise
media, he rarely mentions the term.” If virtual
dance is neither dance nor animation, maybe we should consider it simply as “motion-capture”
which would also includes films like Beowulf
and Avatar, along with dance based
works like Ghostcatching, Biped and Synchronous Object For One Flat Thing Reproduced.
Motion-capture could be a criterion for parsing the virtual dance from
the virtual dance-related, given the universality of the principles involved in
it as a digital technology, despite the singularity of custom-designed systems,
devices and methods for specific artistic projects.
Yet if we consider that dance is a performing art,
requiring embodied presence, virtual dance (in the technological sense of the
word) does not qualify as dance. Motion-captured
virtual dance has no
weight, no breath, no spontaneity. No interpretative skills
come into play, since there are no performers interpreting a choreography or
improvising a dance but data being processed according to the hardware and
software used. What does drawing from an
archive have to do with breathing across a space where the laws of gravity
apply, or even from dancing in micro-gravity as Kitsou Dubois does?
It is not too early to try and answer De Spain’s
previous three questions, given the widespread use of the term ‘virtual dance,’
the variety of phenomena it refers to, and the rapid succession of newer
technologies and devices used in dance and related arts: “Should a motion-captured documentation of an existing live, human dance
(later viewed on computer as performed by digital dancers) also be considered a
dance?” As long as the term “dance”
itself is not defined, it depends on one’s underlying assumptions about what
dance is, so one could consider such documentation a dance if we made no distinction
between presentation and representation, choreography and motion-image editing,
unidirectional time and manipulated time.
The expression “performed by digital dancers” here is, of course, a
metaphor and its use is open to critique.
It is unclear if it is to be interpreted as irony or as part of an
ambient technological rhetoric that plays on the difference in meanings of the
word ‘perform.’ On another sobering
note, Brian Massumi reminds us that, from his perspective, “What’s on the
screen is an icon. What’s behind it is a set of permutations and algorithms and
logical possibilities. None of these
things are [sic] the virtual.”
The digital dancers on the screen result
from computer processing (motion and character modeling data) according to
selected items listed on the menu. The
computer performs in the sense that it carries out instructions: it processes information. A far cry from the dancer who does not merely “execute”
a choreography but embodies it, interprets it, infuses it with his or her own
Yet “dance” is an adequate enough word to describe some of the
activities displayed by virtual characters when compounded with “animation,” “computer,”
“motion-captured,” or “virtual.” "Why not
simply reach out welcoming arms to encompass all movement under the aegis of
dance?" It would be preposterous to lump kinetic
arts, robotics, gymnastics, cinema, multimedia and what not under the dance
umbrella. A more sensible proposition is
to encompass all dance under the aegis of movement. "Why should the technology affect the ontology if movement is the essence
of the work?"
Though choreography and cinema can be placed under the
aegis of movement, both are clearly distinct, regardless of the interesting
rapprochements that can be made which would place cinema, at least some
films, under the aegis of choreography. As seen, De Spain provides an answer to his
own questions when he writes: “I have personally argued
for what might be called a ‘medium-based’ (as opposed to a movement-based)
criteria [sic] for parsing the dance from the dance-related, because film and
video and graphical computers have as much claim to being movement-based media
as does dance.” It would be tempting to say
that the media are the essence of the work (pun intended). However, we must often redefine what ‘media’
means in an era not only increasingly defined by “social media” but also where
telephones are smart, able to do so much more than most home computers could
not do so long ago.
We need not portray dance as a prisoner of the body
in order to commend ventures into digital dance, nor for any other reasons. There is no dance without a body, though we
can wax poetic about the light dance of the aurora borealis or anything else
that shimmers, flickers or quavers. For
that matter, coining expressions like ‘virtual haptics’ when referring to a
process that does not involve the performer’s sensory experience of touch but
creates an illusion of causal relationship between ostensible gesture and
visual display has little to do with virtuality and haptics per se but with the audience’s
We should reserve the term ‘virtual’ for dances that
conform to a stricter definition of it than that often implied when referring
to web dances, telematic dances, or projected pre-recorded dancing figures. The term ‘virtual’ can be used casually to
refer to anything that appears on a screen or, with greater insight, such as
when understood in its relation to the term ‘actual.’ Motion-capture virtualizes dance; physical
modeling and character animation actualize it. We can only perceive actualized instances of
virtual dance. The term “virtual dance”
could also be used in relation to robotics (and teleoperation) with free
standing autonomous robots.
When dealing with dance, we can refer to very
different types of experiences, whether that of the spectator, the dancer, the
accompanist, or the choreographer. Likewise with virtual dance insofar as the
technology conditions it; the experience of a “user” that interacts with a
computerized system via a gesture interface differs from that of a participant
(“immersant”) in virtual reality. But,
of course we are never truly immersed in virtual reality; our sense of weight
is grounded in the physical reality, which is also the space where we breathe. This experience is familiar to those who
engage in “virtual skiing” or other sports in their living rooms. So how different is virtual dance as provided
through motion-capture physical modeling and character animation from dance or
other dance-related technological forms?
A legitmate answer is that with virtual dance through motion-capture, the
traditional link between body and movement has been severed, since the movement
originally produced by a live body can be mapped onto any virtual body. The passage from optical capture to motion-capture
represents a quantum leap in new media arts. It will take more time and effort to begin to
understand the wide range of theoretical implications of this leap into the
While the term ‘virtual dance’ will certainly remain
in use in its very broad sense (especially as a synonym for telematic or
internet), I think its use is more legitimate in instances when a process of
actualization is going on; “where the actual answers to the virtual” as Lévy
writes. In other words, something has to
be happening hic et nunc, here and
now, each instance as unique. There is
of course no live performer but a user who can actualize the dance that
virtually exists in the computer’s memory as data.
Ghostcatching (Bill T. Jones) does
not meet this criterion since it replays itself over and over again,
identically, like some video loop: repetition, not actualization. DO (not)
DISTURB (Cécile Babiole) exhibits the hic et nunc quality, but its array of options is quite limited;
what is made manifest happens in a way akin to sampling and DJing, since the
displayed dance was not motion-captured but optically captured. There is a degree of interaction which enables
actualization, but what is on the virtual side of the device, so to speak, is
not nearly as rich as what motion-captured dance could provide.
Motion-captured virtual dance is distinct from
computer animation and dance film since each actualization depends on input
from a user which makes it unique. To
illustrate the ambiguous character of motion-captured virtual dance, imagine
that it results from the presupposition that dance is proximate to physics
(mechanics), cinema and video to mathematics (geometry), and virtual reality to
metaphysics. To conclude on a more
serious note, virtual dance as a product of digital technology must be
understood both in technological and philosophical terms, and in relation to
other multimedia forms where embodiment is a major issue.
Marc Boucher is an interdisciplinary artist who has published papers on
synaesthesia, peripheral vision, presence, immersion and other topics related
to dance and media arts. He is Associate Professor at
Université du Québec à Montréal.
Published on March 17, 2011.
Performed by Annabelle Whitford Moore imitating Loïe Fuller's original dancing in a film produced by the Edison Company. Accessed on 7 January 2011. http://www.kino.com/edison/qt3.html.
 In optics, a virtual image is a reflected image
which seems to lie behind a mirror’s surface. In holography, a virtual image is not a
reflected image, though it may appear to lie behind the support’s surface.
 Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner, 1953), p. 48.
 Suzanne Langer, Problems of Art (New York: Scribner, 1957), p. 29.
 For Deleuze, virtual is “is real without being
actual, ideal without being abstract.” Gilles
Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. H.
Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1988), pp. 97-98. See also Gilles Deleuze, and Claire Parnet, Dialogues (Paris: Flammarion, 1996), annex to Chapter Five.
 José Gil, "The Dancer’s Body" in A Shock To Thought: Expression after Deleuze
and Guattari, ed., B. Massumi (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 117-127, ref. on
 Ramsay Burt, “History, Memory, and the Virtual in
Current European Dance Practice,” Dance
Chronicle, 32.3 (2009), 442-467, ref. on p. 443.
 Steve Dixon, “A History of Virtual Reality in
Performance,” International Journal of
Performance Arts and Digital Media, 2.1 (2006), 23-54, ref. on p. 24.
Antonin Artaud is quoted in the same passage: “theatre’s virtual reality develops (...) [on
the] dreamlike level on which alchemist signs are evolved.”
For Deleuze-inspired investigations into the virtual
and “virtual realities” (other than its technological forms), see: Andrew Murphie, “Putting the Virtual Back into VR” in A Shock To Thought: Expression after Deleuze and Guattari, ed. B. Massumi (London: Routledge,
2002), pp. 188-214.
 Pierre Lévy, Qu’est-ce que le virtuel? (Paris: La Découverte/Poche,1995), p. 135
(my translation). Also published as Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age,
(New York: Plenum Trade, 1998).
could maintain that perception is always mediated, that an image always results
from some form of mediation. While it is
true that all images are constructed in the visual cortex, according to how
photoreceptors are stimulated in the eye’s retina, mediation involves many
processes; biological, psychological, cognitive, technological, and so forth. Perception, mediation and image are not
understood the same way across disciplines.
 Emru Townsend, “Along the Banks of the St.
Lawrence...” Animation World Magazine
3.12 (1999) accessed on 7 January 2011; available from www.awn.com/mag/issue3.12/3.12pages/townsendcanada.php3.
“In striking contrast to the awkward, robot-like
characters in earlier computer films, De Peltrie looks and acts human; his
fingers and facial expressions are soft, lifelike and wonderfully appealing. In creating De Peltrie, the Montreal team may
have achieved a breakthrough: a digitized character with whom a human audience
can identify.” Time Magazine, August
5, 1985, accessed on 7 January 2011; available from www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1048473-3,00.html.
 Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, and Daniel Thalmann, Handbook of Virtual Humans (Hoboken, New
Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, 2004).
 Jeff Kleiser, ‘Synthespianism”accessed on 7 January
2011; available from www.KurzweilAI.net.
See also: Landon Brooks, ‘Synthespians,
Virtual Humans, and Hypermedia" in Edging
Into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation.
(University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002) pp. 57–59, and Barbara Creed,
"The Cyberstar" in The Film
Cultures Reader (London: Routledge,
is a digital art installation that fuses dance, drawing, and computer
composition. Paul Kaiser and Shelley
Eshkar created the visual and sound composition; Bill T. Jones created and
performed the dance and vocal phrases.” Accessed on 7 January 2011; available from www.openendedgroup.com/index.php/artworks/ghostcatching/.
 See: Diane Gromala, and Yacov Sharir, “Dancing with the Virtual Dervish: Virtual Bodies” in Immersed in Technology (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,1996) pp. 281–286. Also, Diana Gromola, Yakov Sharir, and Markos Novak,
Dancing with the Virtual Dervish
(Austin, University of Texas, 1993).
 Steve Dixon, “A History of Virtual Reality in
Performance” International Journal of
Performance Arts and Digital Media. 2.1 (2006), 23-54.
 “Common to most virtual reality/performance work
is the notion of building a customized input device that becomes a part of the
work itself. The computer takes the input information and more or less
immediately calculates a perspective within the 3-D environment and renders and
displays this as ‘output’ to the user/viewer/audience member via projection
devices.” Scott deLahunta, “Virtual Reality and Performance,” Performing Arts Journal. 24.1 (2002), 105–114,
ref. on p.105.
 Johannes Birringer, “Contemporary
Performance/Technology,” Theatre Journal,
51.4 (1999), 361-381, ref. on p. 362-3.
 Johannes Birringer, “Dance and Media Technologies,”
PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art,
24.1 (2002), 84-93, ref. on p. 84.
 Y. Sharir, "What Tools do You Use?,"
(n.d.), accessed on 27 January 2009;
available from http://internetv.com/sharir.htm.
On the topic of “The bifurcated self – existing
isochronically in both the real and the virtual worlds” see: Jacquelyn
Ford Morie, “Performing in (Virtual) Spaces: Embodiment and Being in Virtual Environments”
International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, 3.2&3 (2007), 123–138.
 Eric Wolfram, “Virtual Dance” Dance Magazine, Feb. 2003, 65-67.
 “...Life Forms is not revolutionizing dance but
expanding it, because you see movement in a way that was always there -- but
wasn’t visible to the naked eye.” Merce
Cunningham quoted on Credo Interactive website, makers of 3D character
animation software Life Forms. Accessed
on 7 January 2011; available from www.credo-interactive.com/.
 Robyn Stuart, and Brian Curson, “Exploring Living
Room: The Dancing Body and Live Immersion in Digital Scenography,” International Journal of Performance Arts
and Digital Media. 2.3 (2006).
 Annie Luciani, Claude Cadoz, and J.L. Florens, “The
CRM device : a force feedback gestural transducer to real-time computer
animation” Displays, 15.3 (1994), 149-155.
See: Kim Vincs
and John McCormick, “Touching Space: Using Motion-capture and Stereo Projection to Create a ‘Virtual
Haptics’ of Dance,” Leonardo, 43.4, (2010), 359–366. Abstract: “This paper
describes the work of a group of artists in Australia who used real-time motion-capture
and 3D stereo projection to create a large-scale performance environment in
which dancers seemed to ‘touch’ the volume. This project re-versions Suzanne Langer’s
1950s philosophy of dance as ‘virtual
force’ to realize the idea of a ‘virtual haptics’ of dance that extends
the dancer’s physical agency literally across and through the surrounding
spatial volume. The project presents a
vision of interactive dance performance that ‘touches’ space by visualizing
kinematics as intentionality and agency. In doing so, we suggest the possibility of new
kinds of human-computer interfaces that emphasize touch as embodied, nuanced
agency that is mediated by the subtle qualities of whole-body movement, in
addition to more goal-oriented, task-based gestures such as pointing or
 Max Fleischer, US patent 1242674: Method of
producing moving-picture cartoons, issued 1917-10-09. See Richard Fleischer, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution.
(University Press of Kentucky, 2005).
 “Dance should not drag behind because it is a
prisoner of the body.” (“Il ne faudrait pas que la
danse tire de l’arrière parce qu’elle est prisonnière du corps.”), attributed
to Martine Époque (LARTech) by Frédérique Doyon, "L’entrevue - Danser sans
corps," Le Devoir 27 August
2007. Newspaper article accessed
on 7 January 2011; available from www.ledevoir.com/2007/08/27/154744.html.
More from LARTech website: "In their recent
(Tabula Rasa: sequel, 2003) and present (NoBody Dance…) work, the digital
actors, free from their physical appearance, offer a dance in which “Human”
manifests itself through a dynamic print carrying the signature of its motion. Liberated from the traditional reference to
body, this new work magnifies the danced movement and its energetic
expression." Article accessed on 7 January 2011; available from www.lartech.uqam.ca/about.htm.
 Carol M. Ginsberg and Delle Maxwell,
"Graphical marionette," Proc.
ACM SIGGRAPH/SIGART Workshop on Motion, ACM Press, New York, April 1983, 172-179.
 Graham Walters, "The story of Waldo C.
Graphic," Course Notes: 3D Character
Animation by Computer, ACM SIGGRAPH 89, Boston, July 1989, pp. 65-79. Quoted in “A Brief History of Motion-capture
for Computer Character Animation” (see note 43).
For example, Gongbing Shan, Peter Visentin, and Tanya Harnett, “A Novel Use of 3D Motion-capture:
Creating Conceptual Links between Technology and Representation of Human
Gesture in the Visual Arts,” Leonardo, 43.1 (2010), 34-42. “As an unfolding of time-based events, gesture is
intrinsically integrated with the aesthetic experience and function of the
human form. In historical and
contemporary visual culture, various approaches have been used to communicate
the substance of human movement, including use of science and technology. This paper links the understanding of human
gesture with technologies influencing its representation. Three-dimensional motion-capture permits the
accurate recording of movement in 3D computer space and provides a new means of
analyzing movement qualities and characteristics. Movement signatures can be related to the
human form by virtue of trajectory qualities and experientially and/or
culturally dependent interactions.”
 “In a majority of psychological or physiological
studies on perception of biological motion, the stimulus is often limited to a
set of dots supposedly attached to the joints of a person. In spite of this drastic information
degradation, the human visual system organizes the dots pattern in an
undeniable percept of a biological creature. Various techniques were used in order to
generate the group of dots, from video recording to pure simulation, including motion-capture.
If the first leaves little possibility
of deterioration of the signal, a combination of the two last makes it possible
to obtain data realistic enough and to handle them on computer, with the aim of
identifying pertinent information.” Jean-Louis
Vercher, "Perception and Synthesis of Biologically Plausible Motion: From
Human Physiology to Virtual Reality," Gesture
in Human-computer Interaction and Simulation, ed. S. Gibet, N. Courty, J. F. Kamp (Berlin and Heidelberg: Springer, 2006)
pp. 1-12, ref. on p. 8.
 Ann Dils, “The Ghost In The Machine: Merce
Cunningham and Bill T. Jones,” Performing Arts Journal, 24.1 (2002), 94–104, ref.
on p. 101.
 “We investigated quantification of dance movement
by simultaneous measurement of body motion and biophysical information. For the above objective, we constructed a
simultaneous measurement system with optical motion-capture and EMG equipment. This system enabled us to record basic
movements of legs while both the motion data and EMG are visualized on CG
character animation. We can expect that
our research will help dancers and researchers on dance through giving new
information on dance movement which cannot be analyzed with motion-capture
alone.” C. Woong, I. Tadao, S. Mamiko,
T. Seiya and H. Kozaburo, “Quantification of Dance Movement by Simultaneous
Measurement of Body Motion and Biophysical Information,” International Journal of Automation and Computing, 4,1, (2007), 1-6,
ref. on p.6.
 “En quelque sorte, son travail sur la lumière
et le mouvement était déjà trop essentiellement chorégraphique pour être
cinématographisé. Nouveau type de spectacle reposant sur l’avènement de l’éclairage
électrique et participant au rêve d’une scénographie révolutionnaire formulée
par les théoriciens de la scène moderne et de l’art de la mise en scène, la
danse serpentine présentait le mouvement dansé comme une énergie désincarnée
dépassant les frontières définitoires du corps humain, annihilant même l’idée
de corporalité, transformant la présence scénique en une pure image animée.” Dick Tomasovic, Kino-Tanz
L’art chorégraphique du cinéma (Paris, Presses universitaires de France,
2009), p. 65.
 Sally Banes, Terpsichore
in Sneakers (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1987), p.
 Kent De Spain, “Dance and Technology: A Pas de Deux for Post-humans,”
Dance Research Journal 32.1 (2000), 2-17, ref. on p. 6
 Mark Poster, “Afterword,” Deleuze
and New Technology, ed. Mark Poster and David Savat. (Edinburg University
Press, 2009) pp. 258-262, ref on p. 258.
 Brian Massumi and Toni Dove, "The Interface and I : A Conversation
Between Brian Massumi and Toni Dove," Artbyte
: The Magazine of Digital Arts, 1.6 (1999), 30-37, ref. on p. 34.