Digitising Ancient Dance

On April 20 and 21 2016, and  members of the Oxford University research project Ancient Dance in Modern Dancers ADMD, in association with Humlab, Umeå University researchers and technicians, and the Lausanne-based dance academy Le Marchepied made use of Umeå University's motion-capture facility  with the critical help of Jim Robertsson as part of the investigation of dance reconstruction. ADMD Oxford was established in 2013 to conduct practice-led research into the ancient Graeco-Roman performance genre known variously as orchêsis, tragoedia saltata ("danced tragedy") or tragic pantomime. This was a form of solo storytelling through movement popular between the first and fifth centuries CE. Using evidence from textual and iconographic sources, we have been working with live dancers to re-imagine the art-form. In this phase of the project, we examined the implications, both practical and theoretical, of digitizing orchêsis. What does it mean to translate dance in a post-human world? What does the re-embodiment or re-enactment of orchêsis signify in a context where the electronic interface has become a mundane means of mediation between dispersed human bodies? Can the digital be incorporated into the terpsichoreal?

While the team of researchers, technicians and dancers initially saw this as a non-teleological experiment a sort of a digital lab experiment with ancient text, the final implementation deliverable was to create a Virtual Reality prototype of a pantomime dancing avatar within a Roman Amphitheatre. 

With the aid of Humlab-based 3D artist Mattis Lindmark a simple, neutral avatar was first placed within a test space without a specific theatre background: (http://cultumea.com/testzone/MocapHistoryWeb/index.html last accessed 27.09.2017). At a later stage, the team borrowed a Virtual Reality environment of the theatre at Pompeii.[1]  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gApcaxSGqh0&feature=youtu.be last accessed 27.09.2017 see also figure 4c).  The avatar used was a synthesis of disparate gender and age features: a conventional female face on a young/early teenager male body with an olive skin complexion and African hair. The reason for the combination of these aesthetic elements was to reflect that professional dance training started from a young age in antiquity (Libanius, Oration 64) and that the Roman empire was a diverse geographical and cultural space thus adding to current scholarship and public debates about the ancient world. 

Why digitizing an ancient art form in Virtual Reality? 

Technology is always 'good to think with' to paraphrase Levi- Strauss.  Immersion dictates that movement, auditory components and other forms of expression enable an interactive appreciation of materiality beyond the visual, thus enabling a simulation of what UNESCO defines as 'Intangible Cultural Heritage'. Typically intended for education or for cultural heritage purposes, virtual worlds are gradually becoming popularized beyond the cultural or the creative heritage industry and have become tools for research, education and dissemination of the past. The complexity of building digital immersive visualizations, as well the power of experiencing the past emotionally, and physically ought to be addressed.


Helen Slaney, Roehampton University

Anna Foka, Humlab, Umeå University  

Sophie Bocksberger, Oxford University

Jim Robertsson, Umeå University 

Mattis Lindmark, Umeå University 

The project has been generously financed by the Fell FundTORCH FoundationRiksbankens Jubieumsfond and the Balticgruppen Foundation.