Could Google Be the World's Next Great Choreographer?
When coming up with phrases of movement, choreographers all have their habits: certain patterns they return to again and again, tendencies that repeat themselves whether they mean for them to or not.
What if artificial intelligence could be used to help choreographers mix things up by suggesting thousands of other options—and ones that still fit their choreographic style, no less?
Wayne McGregor is experimenting with just that through a project with Google Arts & Culture Lab.
McGregor's long been known for experimenting with technology in his work. (He has an honorary doctor of science from Plymouth University.) But this is the first time he's experimented with using technology to create his work.
His work at the Google lab began with uploading his archive—thousands of hours of video spanning 25 years of his repertory—to train an algorithm to detect patterns. The AI uses that data to predict McGregor-like sequences that might follow a particular pose or phrase, generating up to 400,000 (!) iterations. Or, as McGregor puts in a promo video for the project, "This...gives you all of these new possibilities you couldn't have imagined."
Basically it's kinda like the predictive text on your phone, except for dance. And with a lot more options.
The tool works in real time as a camera watches dancers move in space. And it's not simply suggesting something from the archive—it can offer ideas that are totally original. It can be set to reflect a particular dancer's style, or even combine the styles of two different dancers to come up with a hybrid.
"I'm fascinated in how AI might actually develop the conversation around what is choreography, who has to make choreography, what are the potentials of choreography," McGregor says in the video, adding later that he'd love to see the tool used live onstage one day.
Of course, we're not exactly headed down the road to hiring robot choreographers just yet. The point is not to replace a choreographer—just to remind them of their creative options.
But in our age of technology, much of the pleasure of dance stems from the refreshing fact that it's such a viscerally human form of communication. So what would it mean if the movement came not from an artist, but a machine? You can't help but wonder how its message might shift, or how its impact might evolve.
Or, for that matter, whether Google would get credit in the program.
In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.