Losing the Body

What happens when you separate the dancer from the dance?

A photo: Bill T. Jones, the vanguard modern dancer-choreographer, buck naked in a drab, cement room. Twenty-four white Ping-Pong balls are taped all over his etched and lithe body (with a last one fixed to the tip of his manhood). The medical-test-subject mood doesn't end there— Jones is surrounded by eight motion-sensor cameras, lights, tripods, and cables, which capture every one of his movements. And then, though the photo doesn't show it, he releases and begins to dance.

After the shoot, Jones confessed that he felt that he was "breaking a taboo" by letting himself go under such scrutiny. Dancers have a "strange piety," Jones told Paul Kaiser, the New York­based digital artist who was monitoring his improvisations— a belief that only the "ephemeral moment of performance" counts. To Jones, recording the dance with all the equipment was not only a kind of "blasphemy," but an unsettling act, like Native Americans not wanting their pictures taken for fear of losing their soul; he termed it "ghostcatching."

For those who suspect the supernatural, the evidence of its power is here. In the stunning new "Ghostcatching" exhibition, unveiled Tuesday at Cooper Union's Houghton Gallery, Jones has vanished from that footage, but his movements remain behind. After months of painstaking and subtle digital manipulation, Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, his partner in the digital arts studio Riverbed (riverbed.com), have effectively subtractedJones from his own dance. The results are spectacular. The eight-and-a-half-minute film, shown with a selection of large, luminescent prints, is difficult to capture in words, but your body will understand. It's as if Jones's form had been replaced by calligraphy twisting in space. The remnants are spectral, fluid and incredibly accomplished, a landmark in the computerized rendering of the human form. And not because they look like a body, but expressly because they don't.

This is Kaiser and Eshkar's riskiest gamble. While Hollywood and the video game industry march ceaselessly toward more and more immaculate photo-realism, Riverbed attacks that approach with a kind of digital impressionism. The human form is reduced to distorted lines and curves (called splines). Imagine electronic graffiti and you're halfway there. The studio has worked with dance and theater luminaries like Merce Cunningham, Jones, and Robert Wilson, because the masters' subtlety and grace represent the supreme challenge to computers trying to fake it. Judging by the success of Riverbed's projects so far— Kaiser is the first digital artist to win a Guggenheim and one of Riverbed's projects was celebrated at last year's arts showcase SIGGRAPH— their work already suggests one future of the choreographic imagination. But as Kaiser says about "Ghostcatching," "we didn't want to create a tool for dance. We wanted to create a tool that was a dance."

Riverbed's process is elaborate and, of course, relies on industrial-strength software and machines. To begin, Kaiser and Eshkar twice recorded Jones in motion-capture studios (wearing a body suit or the aforementioned reflective markers). Every motion and sweep of his body was converted into a skeletal wire-frame version of Jones, via an instrumental software program called Character Studio, developed by the West Coast company Unreal Pictures for Kinetix. (The same company created a demo of its product featuring a shimmying infant. Before long, the "Dancing Baby" was on Ally McBeal and beyond.) Then, using its "Motion Flow Editor," Kaiser and Eshkar, together with the choreographer, spliced together Jones's 30 different dance "sequences" in any order they wished, effectively "sampling" him. The software automatically generates a seamless connection among all his gestures.

At that point, Eshkar, a B.F.A. Cooper Union alum, dropped the wire-frame body from the footage and began sketching. According to Kaiser, since Jones's dance is about more than the lines of the body, including the "soft parts" like muscle and skin, "you can't render it right, but you can suggest it." In an application called 3D Studio Max, Eshkar draped ribbons of color along Jones's body that knot, spiral, and spin. "We were trying to put back what we took away," says Eshkar— a crisis of "motions in a void needing bodies." Ironically, Eshkar's brilliant and extemporaneous sketches actually took weeks of labor at the machine. Riverbed eventually migrated to Compaq computer's render farm in Houston, Texas, to complete the film.

What's most impressive is the sheer sense of weight that Kaiser and Eshkar create with the wisps of a virtual figure. Jones's own fear, he told Kaiser, was that he did not "want to be a disembodied, denatured, degendered series of lines moving in a void." The void is still there, but his figure is surprisingly present and spontaneous— akin to Picasso's famous drawings in the air using a flashlight and a long-exposure photograph. If you could look long enough at Jones's doppelgänger, you could almost see the slight line of his chest rising then falling in breath. (Plus, there's that 24th Ping-Pong ball to keep at least the gender . . . er . . . straight.)

The trail of Jones's movement is the subject of "Skein," one of the exhibition's strongest sections. In it, as the "ghost" glides through space, his arms and legs leave a trail hanging still in the air. The figure then backs away from the camera, and the camera follows him, sweeping forward throughthe floating spoor. Admittedly, the cloud of action is busy and something of a mess; Jones didn't choreograph it to be looked at this way. But it's a remarkably chilling effect, like watching a figure carving into the wind around it.

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