Alexander Whitley’s ‘Celestial Motion’ brings motion capture into a virtual environment © Luca Biada

Dance has always struck me as the most low-tech art form there is: all you really need are dancers and somewhere for them to perform. Even experimental pieces tend to be crafted in time-honoured ways — a choreographer devises moves and rehearses them hands-on with a company. Watch classic ballets such as Coppélia or The Nutcracker and you’re seeing steps that date back more than a century, painstakingly re-rehearsed from generation to generation: an unrepentantly analogue form of facsimile.

But some contemporary dancers are keen to disrupt the form. The restlessly forward-thinking choreographer Wayne McGregor recently allowed his video archive to be watched and analysed by Google-powered artificial intelligence in the hopes of fingerprinting his high-energy style. And last year, three major European dance theatres united for a “hackathon”, which brought together dancers, software engineers and designers for several days of trials.

The winning hackathon project in London, called Digital Umbilical, employed wearable technology to monitor a single performer’s breathing and the heartbeat of a watching audience member. The two waveforms were then combined to produce a new soundscape — an intriguing experiment in how the human and digital might unite to create new forms of dance. Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler’s Wells theatre in London and one of the judges for the event, argues that dance is inherently receptive to such cross-fertilisation: “Choreographers and dancers have always been open to collaboration from all other disciplines,” he tells me.

To my eye, some of the most interesting digital innovations have involved “mo-cap” or motion-capture, which tracks the movement of bodies in space using sophisticated sensors. One artist who has pushed the live possibilities of mo-cap is the British dancer-choreographer Alexander Whitley, a self-confessed teenage games “nerd” whose early stage experiments were inspired as much by the Nintendo Wii as the canon of Merce Cunningham. Whitley’s first foray into mo-cap, 2014’s The Measures Taken, co-created with the digital studio Marshmallow Laser Feast, deployed the Microsoft Kinect, a motion-sensing add-on device for the Xbox gaming console. Eight Kinects were used to track five dancers, then the data were used to generate animated digital images — snaking lines, dense thickets of polygons. These were then projected on stage for his dancers to perform alongside.

When we meet at Sadler’s Wells one lunchtime, Whitley is keen to show me a more recent piece, Celestial Motion, which moves mo-cap technology one step further by bringing it into a virtual environment. Based on a live show from 2017, it blasts the viewer/participant off on a VR flight around the solar system.

At his urging, I pop in some earbuds and slip on a headset: suddenly I’m drifting through deep space, watching as stars transform into humanoid forms, dancing to a propulsive beat. By toggling the settings, I can watch these figures perform as people (which is, of course, what they originally were) or swarming points of light. It’s a dazzling experience: rarely has the dance of the heavens seemed so literal. But then it makes sense that a choreographer — used to thinking in 3D every working day — would make a more imaginative kind of virtual reality than the film-makers and games developers who have generally been employed to create it.

‘The Measures Taken’ (2014) by Alexander Whitley deployed the motion-sensing Microsoft Kinect © Sandra Ciampone

Latterly, though, I’ve begun to wonder whether we need dancers at all — or, for that matter, choreographers. Not long ago, a Japanese company based in Tokyo, called Rhizomatiks, working in collaboration with the media artist Kyle McDonald, unveiled a piece entitled Discrete Figures featuring an “AI dancer”, a neural network trained to generate its own steps. After capturing the movement of real-life dancers improvising to a click-track, the network then generated a humanoid form that was projected on to an onstage screen.

For the finished piece, performed in Tokyo, New York and elsewhere, a female dancer performed alongside the computer, attempting to keep up with her digital counterpart (and not always succeeding). When I watch the video of the show online, this machine/human “duet” strikes me as both beguiling and faintly creepy. Forget dancing the robot; the robots are learning to dance. And they’re getting alarmingly good.

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