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Composition meets choreography: Technology enables dancers to use movement to create music

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ECU dancers rehearse in McGinnis Auditorium.while wearing motion-capture suits that project their movement onto the screen in real time.


By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Friday, March 8, 2019

Dancers in motion-capture suits look like they are helping to create animation for videos, but this is no game.

For every leap, turn or bend, a different sound is produced, and the process by which music emanates from motion is a work of art.

Composition meets choreography this month in a collaboration between the ECU School of Theatre and Dance and interactive, electroacoustic musicians known as The Machine is Neither.

Their new work, commissioned by the NC NewMusic Initiative, will premiere on March 23 in McGinnis Theatre as part of Spring Dance 2019.

“There's deep connection between the movement and the sound that is primary in dance art but it is really amplified and front and center in this work,” said John Dixon, an associate professor in ECU’s School of Theatre and Dance who also serves as concert coordinator for Spring Dance 2019.

A second performance will be on March 25 in A.J. Fletcher Recital Hall as part of a concert featuring other works by The Machine is Neither's Emma Hospelhorn and Ben Sutherland. The Chicago-based musicians have been working with ECU students and choreographers for months to prepare this unique project for its premiere.

Sutherland created software to enable the motion-capture suits to trigger sounds based on the dancers' movements. Then he and Hospelhorn worked with Dixon and fellow Associate Professor Teal Darkenwald to bring motion and music together in a performance titled “Terra Lingua.”

“Part of the mission of the NewMusic Initiative is to explore new ideas and new ways of thinking about music,so this seemed to fit into our mission really well,” said Ed Jacobs, the Robert L. Jones Distinguished Professor of Music and founding director of NewMusic Initiative.

“I have to be honest with you, it's like many projects that we do in the NewMusic Initiative. It's a little bit like jumping out of a plane,” he said. “I'm taking some chances because I think these are great people with really interesting ideas.”

Those ideas involve outfitting dancers in suits filed with wires and nearly 20 motion sensors. Designed to assist in animation, the suits generate life-like avatars based on the movements of the wearer. During the performance, live and pre-recorded avatars will be projected on a screen to accompany the five dancers cast in “Terra Lingua.”

“It's fascinating stuff,” Dixon said. “(At rehearsal), the first moment where sound and video and the movement came together, we were all like 'Wow! That is pretty amazing!

“The sound environments aren't necessarily traditional sounds that people would expect with dancing,” he added. “They're electronic-based sounds that modify in relationship to the movements in unexpected ways … I think audiences will have a little bit of a kid in a candy store (effect).”

That is kind of how ECU senior Megan Shepherd feels about getting to wear a motion-capture suit for the performance. The Durham native learned to use three-dimensional motion-capture software in ECU's Innovation Design Lab last year as part of an independent study. Incorporating the technology into a performance is a blend of two of Shepherd's passions, dance and science.

“It's been fun to learn it and look at the technical side of things,” she said. “With dance you can really see what the suit can do and what the system can actually capture.”

The suits do present their share of challenges. Senior Donterreo Culp, who also is also outfitted in a motion-capture suit for the performance, said technical difficulties have sometimes short-circuited rehearsals.The suits also add an unnecessary layer of warmth to dancers who are sweating from performing exhausting routines under stage lights. In addition, sensors placed throughout the material can cause pain and bruising.

Still, Culp is excited to see the final result.

“We're kind of put in the same position as the audience where we don't know what's coming next,” he said. “Every time we get to do it, it could sound different. It's interesting to be a part of that and know that everything might change.”

Performances will be held at 8 p.m. on March 23 in McGinnis Theatre and 7:30 p.m. on March 25 in A.J. Fletcher School of Music. Admission is free on March 25. Tickets to the March 23 performance, which includes a program of two hours of dance, are $15 for the general public and $10 for students and youth. Visit ecu.edu/arts or call 328-4788.