Free Space: Dance Meets Optics

Dance meets optics
by Monte Basgall

As befits experimental ventures of the technical kind, the "Free Space" dance concerts, a three-night art and engineering collaboration at Duke's Sheafer Theater Feb. 21-23, started with a problem that needed a quick fix.

Because of the oversensitivity of light engineers' heat-sensing cameras, "glowing" performers of Winston-Salem's alban elved dance company failed to materialize as planned in one opening night routine, said Steve Feller, manager of the Duke Information Spaces Project (DISP).

DISP, part of the Pratt School of Engineering's Fitzpatrick Center for Photonics and Communications Systems, offered the special infrared light cameras for use in one of the dancers' routines, which was designed to explore the nature of space and time with some technological assistance.

Sequestered inside a long cloth that draped from the stage's ceiling, alban elved members had rehearsed touching the sheet while dancing so the cameras would pick up their invisible body heat, Feller said. The resulting glowing infrared images that the cameras recorded were also projected on to the same cloth, simultaneously making the fabric into an infrared movie screen for the theater audience.

"These are highly accurate scientific cameras, and what we did every time in all the rehearsals was we would calibrate them for the room temperature at that time," Feller said. "We didn't even consider the fact that as you go from a few dancers in the room to 105 people in the audience, the temperature was going to rise enough that everything registered as being hot."

With the infrared cameras no longer able to distinguish dancers from background, the screen routine was a washout (although it was resurrected on subsequent performances with some spot adjustments).

Feller also acknowledged toning down the Argus Sensor Array, DISP's prized circle of 64 digital color video cameras that can simultaneously create images of anyone within the ring from multiple perspectives. "We really stripped down its capabilities to show this dance," he said.

With each camera connected to its own computer processor in an integrated network, the sensor array can function as "a supercomputer," said Fitzpatrick Center director David Brady. That means Argus's images can be cyber-manipulated so that they, for instance, appear to spin in space. Another option is to view the images in 3-D with the aid of special glasses.

But Feller said he feared all that might be too much for a dance before a large audience. "If it got to be too complicated, and we started showing Argus's unlimited potential, the audience may not be able to understand what was going on."

So, in their last routine, dancers instead performed outside in the theater's foyer. And their 2-D images, recorded one camera at a time, were simultaneously"streamed" digitally inside through fiberoptic lines onto an onstage screen.

Before coming to Duke's new Fitzpatrick Center, Feller and Brady worked with other dancers as well as martial arts performers in Illinois to demonstrate the Argus Sensor Array's cameras in an arts setting.

It was Kathy Silbiger, director of Duke's Institute of the Arts, who suggested that alvan elved, founded in Berlin in 1997, work with DISP and the Fitzpatrick Center here. "I was impressed by their adventurous use of new technologies and their obvious delight in experimenting with new forms of movement," Silbiger said.

At a related symposium on interdisciplinary collaborations, held Feb. 22 at Duke's John Hope Franklin Center, alban elved founder Karola Luttringhaus said her group started working with such high-tech tools last year, triggering laser beams to call up arrays of syncopated electronic sounds. The new collaboration with the Fitzpatrick Center "opens up so many possibilities of places to go," Luttringhaus added.

Such marriages between art and science are nothing new, noted another of the symposium's speakers. One early techno-art devotee was Loie Fuller, an American who became the toast of Europe at the turn of the 20th century for her own artificial light-enhanced dancing, said Barbara Dickinson, who directs Duke's Dance Program.

Fuller "used light and hundreds of yards of fabric to create the impression of flame," Dickinson added. "She traveled with 40 electricians for her performances. She was quite a wonderful amateur scientist."

Unfortunately, science was not yet sufficiently aware of the radioactive hazards of radium salts, which Fuller began applying to her fabrics to make them glow so brightly that theater audiences "could read the New York Times" by the light, Dickinson said. Fuller ultimately died prematurely from cancer.