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Motion Bank Creates An Archive Of Dancer's Movements

Using motion tracking to capture movement, The Motion Bank is building an open-source repository of dance.

Data is the future. Whoever controls the data has the power. But in the case of choreographer William Forsythe, he doesn't want power. He wants a library. A library of movement. And he wants to share it with everyone to benefit the future of the art of dance. And art, in general.

The Motion Bank is a four-year data collection project based in Frankfurt, Germany that captures dancers' movements with video cameras and Microsoft Kinnect. The data is then analyzed and visualized through animation. Forsythe hopes to document the dances as data point sets and transmute them into another “language.”


The aren't the first to do so. Digital artists like Universal Everything, FIELD, and Memo Akten & Quayola have set a high bar when it comes to translating human movement from dancers and athletes into gorgeous abstract forms using motion tracking technology. But the process of motion capture is expensive and complicated, even when it comes to using more conventional commercial tools like the Microsoft Kinect, so the initiative to create and open source a repository of motion capture data, like The Motion Bank is doing, is a pretty empowering one for many in the dance and digital arts communities.

To capture these dances, The Motion Bank partnered with four choreographers from around the world: Deborah Hay, Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion, Bebe Miller and Thomas Hauert. Teams from the Score Partners of Motion Bank from research institutions such as Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design and Department of Dance at The Ohio State University and Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics Research IGD.The partners capture the data and process the choreography into innovative digital forms. Each choreographer was chosen for her or his style and unique ways of working.

For instance, Deborah Hays has a solo project in which she choreographed a piece called “No Time to Fly,” taught it to 20 different dancers, had them rehearse it for three months, and then asked the dancers to perform it. It was part of a 14 year project in which she taught a new dance annually to a new group of dancers. It was a way to share or spread her work throughout the world. A sort of movement meme.


“I was clear that it wasn’t an interpretation,” Hays said in an interview at Tanzkongress 2013. “It was an adaptation. Which, just in terms of language, an adaptation is something that moves something forward. It’s a kind of evolution of something. They weren’t interpreting my material. They were practicing using my tools and through that noticing the feedback of their bodies, their teachers.”

Now, The Motion Bank is documenting her solos, and the evolution of her work is going digital. During the research process, the artists capturing the data were inspired to create their own works of art, using digital information about the dances.

One of the most beautiful examples of this kind of adaptation is by German artist Amin Weber. Fittingly, Weber took Hays’ “No Time to Fly,” which was originally performed by Ros Warby, Juliette Mapp and Jeanine Durning. The digital piece is haunting and often funny. Weber gilds the lily of the dancers’ motions with his animations to create a new and lovely piece of art.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects to the project is how the project is influencing how digital artists make new work.

“In artistic work I try to enlarge my field of perception,” says Weber. “But working with Deborah Hay and the performers showed me how incredibly large that field can be when someone leads you in a direction you didn't know existed. Deborah Hays advice to ‘Turn your fucking head!’ seems to apply to more art disciplines than just dance.”

The project ends this December with public presentations, and the bank is beginning its online archives with an interactive website, starting with Hays work. The ultimate goal of The Motion Bank is to use the research for choreographers and dancers to learn from each other. That gives power to the people. It enables artists to discover new ways to evolve and spread the beauty of dance.