Luke Hopper uses sophisticated motion capture technology to better understand the biomechanics of dance and to tailor advice to dancers in order to help them limit their injuries. Originally developed for clinically analysing the way US children with cerebral palsy walk, and later perfected for use in films such as Titanic and Lord of the Rings, the technology allows Hopper to create specialised computer video of an individual dancer which can then be studied in slow-motion detail.
To create the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings, actor Andy Serkis wore a soft Velcro suit with reflective balls attached to it in a certain configuration. The motion capture system recognised the shape and produced video of a moving skeleton which could then be used to drive an avatar. The technique is still widely used in film, television and for computer games, and Hopper uses it to help dancers avoid injury by determining exactly how their feet fall, their ankles turn and their knees bend – working out exactly where the risks lie.
“Science prioritises accuracy, of course, so the balls are typically attached to the skin of the dancer or sportsperson,” he says. “There are endless applications of the technology.”
A leader in the field of drama and theatre arts at Edith Cowan University, Hopper is developing a health education and research program in collaboration with the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts staff and students. He completed his doctorate on the biomechanics of dance and injury prevention at the University of Western Australia, writing a thesis on how venue floors affect dancers.
“If there was a way that injuries could be prevented by improving the surface dancers are on, that seemed to have an easier translation and social impact,” he says.
With a scholarship from UWA he spent six months developing his doctorate project proposal and found that a British firm, Harlequin Floors, produces most of the dance floors for major ballet companies around the world. He also discovered that Loughborough University in the English Midlands has a sports equipment research centre, including a small sports surfaces group. “In addition to being great collaborators, they had a kit to test the floors,” he says.
Hopper was also given an injury audit compiled by the chief physiotherapist of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, a company that tours frequently through the UK, visiting the same venues year after year. Analysis of the audit revealed that some venues were particularly hazardous.
He tested the stage floors in question and found they were either quite hard or inconsistent, with harder spots and soft spots, which were indistinguishable from each other from a dancer’s perspective.
One floor, at a venue where most injuries had occurred, was inconsistent, he found. “Dancers agreed it was the most difficult floor to dance on,” he says. “I went on to do a couple more studies on dancers’ perceptions about how sensitive they were to different floor types.”
His research provided the first evidence that floor types should be a consideration for ballet companies to limit dancers’ inevitable injuries. “We know that dancers get injured,” he says. “It’s an elite form of movement, and like any elite sport, it requires intense training to build up repertoire and skills.”