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Spotlight on Alexander Whitley: Combining Dance With Mocap

Updated: Feb 16

The London-based choreographer uses motion capture to turn around concepts that exist in reality for his audiences to experience in a different way.

After training with the Royal Ballet School from the age of eleven, Alexander Whitley danced with Birmingham Royal Ballet before moving into contemporary dance with Rambert Dance Company. It was when he worked alongside Wayne McGregor, world renowned for his innovations in dance and technology, that Alex really began exploring this territory.

Crediting his formative years as sparking his interest in tech, Alex explains “I was part of the first generation to grow up with games consoles as a feature of our lives. I had friends that began careers as graphic designers and digital artists, a peer group that were growing into new technologies and experimenting with tech that was previously prohibitively expensive.”

When it was time to hang up his professional dancing shoes, Alex recognised the growing interest in dance as a traditional practice and the capabilities of technologies such as mocap, AR and VR. He founded Alexander Whitley Dance Company (AWDC) in 2014 with the aim of creating dance performances with a strong focus on the use of digital technology and offering a platform for real experimentation and collaboration.

One of the companies’ earlier projects used an OptiTrack rig to record choreography for an interactive virtual reality experience in collaboration with The Guardian. Seven dancers were captured at one time for Celestial Motion, which explored movement across human and astronomical scales, set over two cosmic worlds.

In 2019, Sadler’s Wells commissioned AWDC to create Overflow. Featuring a kinetic light sculpture, the project questions what it means to be human in the shadow of big data. The theme continued in the costumes with 3D printed masks that stem from the concept of surveillance and facial recognition technologies.

It was during the first lockdown, in conversation with Alex, that the artist and experimental filmmaker Memo Akten suggested a resource of motion capture of contemporary dance would be of interest to digital artists. The idea was to have something open, explorative and creative. Alex began ‘messing around with the mocap suits, recording movement, learning about the issues, the calibration, the magnetic interference’ as a way of keeping busy. Of course, many people were in the same situation, interested in experimenting with mocap and sharing ideas - a demonstration of how these technologies enable remote collaboration that wouldn't previously have been possible.

What started as those initial experiments led to Arts Council England funding AWDC to create a triptych of longer format digital films, allowing them to go deeper into this territory. Continuing their investigation into how dance can exist in a digital form, and delving into how human movement can be visualised through motion capture and games engine technology, they released the first of the films, Chaotic Body 1: Strange Attractor and Chaotic Body 2: Liminal Phase. Additional AR versions of Chaotic Body were enjoyed as experiences via tablets at festivals over the summer.

Whitley’s latest project, Anti-Body, will go live next month. Working with Uncharted Limbo Collective, Mercury Prize 2021-nominated composer Hannah Peel, music producer Kincaid and creative technologist Luca Biada, Alex used a mocap system to create a live interactive performance piece for a cast of three dancers. The performance, which Whitley describes as simultaneously “exciting, yet slightly scary,” will see the artists dancing live in front of screens displaying motion responsive, digital visuals that explore tensions between mind and body, containment and connection, and the desire to be unique as well as part of something larger than ourselves.

Alex chose the mocap tech used for Anti-Body in part because it lends itself well to a traditional theatre space and is lightweight and flexible enough to easily tour with. Ricardo Sidoli from Target3D, who supplied the suits, explains “Alex used Perception Neuron Studio suits from Noitom, inertial suits that use magnetic signals to track movement. Transmitters, that look a little like hockey pucks, are attached to the dancer's body with straps and send signals directly to the workstation, avoiding the need for tracking cameras.”

It’s a plug and play version of motion capture, popular with indie animators and dance studios thanks to its ease of set up and use. It works well with almost any quality of light and is super easy to carry around and is more affordable than the traditional mocap methods. The lower price tag reflects the lack of supreme-level accuracy you get with a studio and camera system and you need to be cautious in areas of high magnetic interference but it’s perfect for creative, experimental projects such as Alex’s and makes mocap far more accessible.”

Whilst Anti-Body will preview live in Ipswich and Oxford in October there will also be an online version through their new App, an online home for all of AWDC’s digital content.

Stemming from Alex’s interest in how tracking technologies are creating opportunities to build additional layers of interaction around performance events, the app has a focus on AR content and features a unique film take from his stage production, Overflow, as well as an interactive mask filter. “The app will allow people to take something away from our live events and experience it in their own time,” Alex told us. “I’m keen to explore how new technologies are enabling dance performance to exist in environments beyond the stage and for the public to engage with this content in an exciting variety of ways.”

Find tickets for the October preview of Anti-Body at Dance East Ipswich and Oxford Playhouse. For mocap and AR technology, support and training speak to Target3D, the home of motion capture.



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