Meet the Choreographer Behind Those Dancing Robots

March 29, 2021

Monica Thomas in a multi-colored dress stands barefoot in attitude back, two green shoes scattered on the floor near her.

Monica Thomas
Photo Copyright 2014 Alice Gebura, Courtesy Thomas

Can you tell us a bit about your personal dance history?

Yes! I was trained in the Cecchetti method, and I remained committed to ballet through high school although I took modern, jazz and tap classes along the way. In college, I began choreographing on my own and with others. In my senior year two friends—Theresa Madaus and Tara King—and I decided to make a “joke” dance. This collaboration turned out to be really significant: After college, we formed Mad King Thomas, and have made dances, installations and films together for over 10 years.

Before you started working with Boston Dynamics, were you familiar with their work?

I have a strong memory of seeing BigDog being pushed over and refind its balance, and slipping on ice but staying upright. It has stuck with me for years. I became familiar with Boston Dynamics when I moved back East, and was involved in the Uptown Spot project.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process with the robots and the technical team? How did you go from ideas to action?

Marc Raibert, the founder of Boston Dynamics, who directed the video, sent a generous initial brief that gave me a lot of autonomy to come up with ideas. Early in the process I consulted with my long-term collaborators to flesh out conceptual and musical ideas. I would then bring these back to Marc. We ended up choosing “Do You Love Me?,” which we both found appealing.

I spent time watching the robots move to get a sense of joint flexibility, etc. I then made a dance on my body to act out each part. I hired dancers to learn this choreography, which allowed it to be put together in one sequence for filming. I gave a video of the whole dance to Boston Dynamics, as well as each robot’s part (except Handle—I tried to choreograph Handle using a hoverboard and mostly made myself nauseous).

The next step was working with the engineering teams. Each robot species has its own team, and each had their own process of getting movement onto the robot’s bodies. Atlas‘ process was the most extensive and began the earliest. Some of the initial choreography made it into the final piece, but entire sections were reworked as we better learned the parameters of Atlas’ capabilities. I began working with Handle next, and that choreography arose through conversations with the engineers about what was currently possible and what movements they loved seeing in their work with the robot. Working with Spot was the fastest, as Boston Dynamics had already developed the choreographer software for it and we could iterate in real time.

Can you talk a bit about crediting? In a few of the dance/nerd corners of the internet that I work in, there was some frustration that you weren’t more prominently named the choreographer of this video, which has been viewed nearly 30 million times.

It became pretty clear to me that I walked into a conversation that has been going on for a while but was really new to me. I have historically worked in more traditional performance-arts settings, where you’re often asked to work for free for “exposure.” That was not the case with Boston Dynamics—they respected the value I brought to the table.

Regarding credit, it is challenging to simply ascribe it to any one person. It’s not just that this was a team effort, but that the work was collaborative, and as with any project venturing into new territories, roles were interwoven and at times overlapped. In addition to the work I did, engineering teams developed new techniques to enable the robots to perform the choreography, a designer added nuance to movement and figured out how the robots could transition from one step to the next, engineers modified the robots to make the hardware strong enough for the performance, people planned the framing for the two-minute opening shot, and the director set the style and tone of the performance and helped keep us all on track. There was a whole team involved in putting this piece together. As such, I understand why no one person was called out. But I’m glad Boston Dynamics offered public credit in the IEEE Spectrum article.

What was it like working with the robots, and do you think you’ll do it again?

Working with robots is really interesting. Obviously human bodies have all sorts of constraints and possibilities, but robots—especially as you move past bipeds—really push into new territory. Towards the end of working with Spot, I could sense that there is something about leg pairings and their transitions that could make a really compelling rhythm or design to guide choreography, but I don’t quite know what it is that I’m imagining or how to even conceptualize it. And that is very exciting. I would absolutely do it again.

If you were to suggest special research or training for other choreographers who want to work with robots, what would you recommend?

Get really practiced at noticing movement! Watch how people, animals and machinery move. Pay attention to people walking down the street: How do they shift weight? How does the length of a femur change affect movement? What impacts your perception of what you are seeing? I think choreographers are already really good at this, but if you can make it intentional, and describe it as well as physicalize it for others, that is meaningful, especially when working with nondancers. I have had some rudimentary Laban training which also helped me clarify what I was seeing when looking at movement.

What do you think of the viral response to the video?

It was really exciting. It was also overwhelming? But mostly I love the small anecdotes: I have a friend whose 3-year-old son woke up and danced with the robots every morning for a week. And when my grandmother saw the video, she laughed through the entire piece and told me it was the funniest thing she had seen in 97 years.

What’s next for you and for Boston Dynamics?

Top secret now. Stay tuned!