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Motion-capture exhibition at ASU gives glimpse into new research

November 04, 2002

TEMPE, Ariz. – Another frontier has fallen to the steady march of digital technology. Video, once considered state of the art in documenting dance, has been replaced with three-dimensional motion-capture, a technology with almost unlimited technical and artistic potential.

A new exhibition at ASU’s Computing Commons Gallery, running Nov. 14 – Dec. 20, will give the public the opportunity to experience a motion-capture interpretation of legendary dancer Merce Cunningham’s hand and finger dance,Loops. The exhibition is presented by the nationally recognized Institute for Studies in the Arts in the Herberger College of Fine Arts, which also boasts the exhibition’s creators as its newest resident artists.

In Loops: A Portrait of Merce Cunningham, digital artists Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, together with Marc Downie, creator of the real-time graphics system, combine motion-capture technology with real-time graphics and rendering to create an expressive digital version of Cunningham’s solo dance for hands and fingers.

In the digital piece, the motion-captured joints become nodes in a 3-D space, linked by a network of lines that sometimes resemble the dancer’s hands, but at others creates complex cat’s-cradle-like patterns. 

The work was created last year under the auspices of the M.I.T. Media Lab, although the team of Kaiser and Eshkar have worked together for a number of years, creating such groundbreaking visual art works as Ghostcatching (with dancer Bill T. Jones) and BiPed(with the Merce Cunningham Company.)

Cunningham, born in 1919, is a giant of 20th century American dance. He received his first formal training at the Cornish School (now Cornish College) in Seattle, Wash., and, from 1939–45, was a soloist with the company of Martha Graham. During this time he began to choreograph independently and in 1953 he formed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for which he has choreographed more than 150 works. 

He has been honored with the National Medal of Arts, the Golden Lion award presented at the Venice Biennale, the Digital Dance Premier Award presented in London, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at America’s National Museum of Dance.

In the 1970s, Cunningham choreographed Loops, which he originally performed in front of a Jasper Johns painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Unlike his other solos, he has never set Loops on another dancer. Always first to experiment with new technology in the choreography and presentation of his work, Cunningham agreed to the 3D interpretation in 2000. 

The creators of Loops: A Portrait of Merce Cunningham, are now participating in a three-year project with the ISA to further develop and “train” the new technology for broad use across the dance world and in other potential fields such as physical rehabilitation and security. Renowned dancers and choreographers, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown and Bebe Miller will also participate in the joint project of the ISA, Computer Science and ASU Public Events.

Titled Motione the research uses three video and eight infrared cameras situated within the ISA’s Intelligent Stage to record and render, in real time, the movements of a dancer wearing a full body suit with numerous motion-capture markers. This enables the computer to render a complex three-dimensional line drawing of the dancer’s movements.

The goal of the current research is to develop and guide the technology to the point where it can give a complete description of any gesture by the dancer, using both qualitative and quantitative parameters, creating a never-before-attainable level of detail when scoring and notating dance. This will be done by capturing a set of 70 micro dances that cover variations across the many movement parameters. These dances will be used as an instruction set for the technology.

The technology also will be developed so that it can be personalized to the user, learning and using an individual dancer’s own definitions of qualitative parameters. It is hoped that the result will be the creation of a common language for communication about movement, while still allowing space for individual expression.

The finished project is expected to premiere with performances in spring of 2005. For more information about Motione or Loops, please contact the ISA at (480) 965-9438.


Exhibition of Loops: A Portrait of Merce Cunningham: Nov. 14 – Dec. 20 at the Computing Commons Gallery. The gallery is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday – Friday.

Artists’ Lecture: An artists’ lecture featuring Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar and Marc Downie will take place in the Computing Commons Auditorium, from 3-4 p.m., Nov. 14, and will be followed immediately by an opening reception at the Computing Commons Gallery.

An evening with digital artists Paul Kaiser, Shelley Eshkar and Marc Downie: 7:30 p.m., Nov. 16, at the Intelligent Stage in Matthews Center, corner of Cady and Tyler Malls, ASU Main, Tempe. Reservations required.

The Institute for Studies in the Arts is an interdisciplinary research center in ASU’s Herberger College of Fine Arts. In collaboration with the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences as well as other disciplines at ASU, the ISA supports creation, research, development, presentation and education at the intersection of the arts and technology. For more information of the ISA, visit 

Media Contact:
Jennifer Pringle