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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

On movement, motion capture, and mobile apps

Jonah Bokaers FILTER which has its American premiere at Georgia Techs Ferst Center on April 2 used motion capture technology in the creative process and features a mobile phone application to allow for audience interaction during the performance.
  • Eric Boudet
  • Jonah Bokaer's FILTER, which has its American premiere at Georgia Tech's Ferst Center on April 2, used motion capture technology in the creative process and features a mobile phone application to allow for audience interaction during the performance.
Even as a kid, Jonah Bokaer was something of an artistic prodigy. After leaving home at 15, he was recruited into the prestigious Merce Cunningham company in 2000 at the unprecedented age of 18, becoming the youngest dancer ever to work professionally in that ensemble. Since leaving the company in 2007, Bokaer's work, which integrates digital technology, interactivity, motion capture, echolocation, projection, and 3D animation into live dance performance, has placed him firmly on the forefront of the world art scene. With the recent passing of so many of the 20th century's great choreographers, including Cunningham in 2009, some have even touted him as contemporary dance's heir apparent. He's been called a researcher who uses the dance studio as his lab, a choreographer who has expanded the definition of dance, and even an artist who represents “the future of the art world.”

They're broad declarations that Bokaer seems too modest and far too busy to make much fuss about. Among his many simultaneous projects, Bokaer is currently the first artist in residence at Georgia Tech. His residency culminates April 2 at the Ferst Center with a performance of his work FILTER for four male performers, including live music by musician Chris Garneau, scenography by artist Anthony Goicolea, and various technological elements subtly integrated during the creative process.

Choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer
  • Steve Benisty
  • Choreographer and media artist Jonah Bokaer
“There are precedents for working with technology and dance,” Bokaer says when asked about his impulse to integrate the two.“The precedents really go back to the invention of photography, how to capture motion, how to capture a portrait. I tend to think of that in terms of image and light, how to capture an image, how to work with light to highlight a subject. I think there's actually a long dialog about how the body and media have intersected.”

Beginning in September, Bokaer took part in a series of four one-week residencies over the course of the school year, working with Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, the College of Architecture and the College of Music Technology. He began by creating intensively in Georgia Tech's motion capture lab, developing movement and rendering it as computer animation with a motion capture suit.

“We resorted to virtual rehearsals,” explains Bokaer. “I created QuickTime files of the animated choreography, so that each performer could practice their roles independently. This saved an incredible amount of time. Cast members were able to rehearse autonomously.”

The resulting digital images will not be seen in the performance itself: The integration of new technology into Bokaer's work is often subtle, so subtle at times it can even escape the audience's notice. Bokaer says he wants to avoid creating a “three-ring circus.” The work is not intended as a tech spectacle, but FILTER does make slightly more prominent use of a new mobile application developed at Georgia Tech during the residency. “We decided to release a little bit of compositional control with the lighting,” he says.

Stephen Garrett, a graduate student at Tech, was among those who worked on the mobile app during Bokaer's residency along with professor Jason Freeman and students Nathan Weitzner and Anosh Daruwalla. Dubbed massMobile, the downloadable app they designed allows for various forms of interaction with a performance in real time through the use of the touch screens on audience members' mobile devices. It enables artists, composers and designers to gather and incorporate input data from an audience into a live performance. In February, Garrett flew to Avignon, France to give the app a test drive at FILTER's world premiere at the Les Hivernales winter dance festival.

When the audience entered the theater, they had their first chance to give the interaction a shot. On stage was artist Anthony Goicolea's opening set for FILTER: a sparse forest of nine barren, gold foil-covered trees scattered across the stage, each lit from above with its own special spotlight. “Each tree's light was set at about 10% when the house doors opened,” Garrett says. Audience members who downloaded the app could select a tree from a list on their touch screens and enable that tree's light to raise to 50% for a few seconds before it would fade back to 10%. Garrett says that this simple interaction was surprisingly beautiful, a subtle pulsing of light that was clearly linked to on-going human choice. “It was like the set was breathing in a way,” he says.


FILTER will have its US premiere on Saturday, April 2, at 8 pm at Ferst Center for the Arts. The application “massMobile” can be downloaded for iPhone and other devices and can be used to manipulate elements of the lighting before the show and during one segment of the performance. Also on the program is Bokaer's 2009 work REPLICA. For more information or to purchase tickets for the performance, visit Ferst Center or call 404-894-9600.

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