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AI and the Augmenting of Dance

Perhaps “DanceTuning” may not be as far out as we think. 

Charli D’Amelio goes on TikTok to dance. It’s what many of the app’s 1 billion users are doing on the video-sharing platform—communities are flocking to the app to watch, record, and share clips of dancing. It’s what took D’Amelio from posting videos online to dancing with Jimmy Fallon on Late Night, and it’s just another iteration of how technology has shaped the way we view and understand dance. 

Dance is likely to have been a part of culture since the induction of human society, harkening back to ancient rituals of social bonding, ceremonies, and healing—and it still enthralls us today. Before TikToks, it was Fortnite dances, viral dances from Vine, YouTube’s “Evolution of Dance” video from 2006, and millions and millions of versions and transformations of dance crazes that came before it. It makes me think of why K-pop stars like BTS find massive international popularity in a time when there are multitudes of fanbases for a variety of artists who find their fame on social media. Perhaps the thing that separates BTS from the rest is dance—it can be easy and expected to augment appearances, voices, and bodies, it is not easy to augment dance. 

Male Dancer Photo Jeans Jacket Urban Fashion

In an “Instagram reality” world, we have become accustomed to not truly believing the things we see in front of us. Faces can be radically changed with filters, singer’s voices can be autotuned to perfection, and the look of bodies can be manipulated in photos and videos. Now imagine if that reality was possible, but with movement. 

A (very) brief history of technology and dance 

Dance and rhythm were likely a part of ritualistic ceremonies for ancient civilizations, perhaps at the temple, or funerals, or at other sacred occasions. During the Renaissance of the 16th and 17th centuries, ballet dominated banquet halls and inspired the opening of academies like Louis XIV’s Académie Royale de Danse. 

The technology varied with the times; Chicago-born dancer Loie Fuller used silk drapery in the late 19th century, experimenting with stage lighting and multimedia to create kaleidoscope effects onto her clothes. In the early 20th century, Hollywood began to incorporate large musical and dance sequences in their films, launching dance into the mainstream arena where it remains today. 

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With the advent of the information age, the late 20th century saw rapid escalation in computer tech and dance collaborations. In 1994, Dawn Stoppiello and Mark Coniglio created the American and German performance ensemble Troika Ranch, which incorporated interactive installations and digital films with dance. As part of In Plane, we see Stoppiello dancing and interacting with a dancer projected behind her. American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham helped create the choreographic software LifeForms in the late 1980s. This “computer compositional tool” enables choreographers to sketch out movement ideas in space and time. 

AI asks to step in 

Cunningham proved to be a pioneer of the art form up until his passing. In 2001, Cunningham worked with OpenEndedGroup on Loops, an abstract digital portrait of Cunningham that has since taken on many forms. 2001’s version, commissioned by the MIT Media Lab, was a piece computed in real-time. Data from the motion capture of Cunningham’s hands and fingers were processed by AI, which resulted in different visual styles and ever-changing outcomes. 

In the 2010s, artist Valencia James’ AI_am project created an improvised duet between AI and a human dancer, where the AI avatar studies the dancer’s movements and adapts it in real-time. With cognitive science, graphics, coding, and dance, AI_am shows back-and-forth learning, augmentation, and improvisation from both the avatar and human. 

It’s interesting to note that in In Plane by Troika Ranch and James’ AI_am, we see the artist and AI avatar both relying on the other for learning and creative inspiration. The human dancer becomes the avatar and vice versa. We have seen this phenomenon in our current social media culture as well, with FaceTune and photo editing literally blurring the edges between reality and animation. Influencer and one-off conspiracy theory Lil Miquela garnered 2 million Instagram followers, mainly driven by audiences wondering whether or not she was actually real. It turns out she’s an avatar too. 

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Dancer Thecla Shiphorst told Wired in 1996 that “Dance is far more technical than computers will ever be.” With the continued augmentation of the human image online, I wonder when dance will be the next thing we can “tune.” Or perhaps like Shiphorst seemed to say, dance has both a technicality and an essence that may truly never be replicated. 

Stephanie Ellen Chan Guest Writer TechAcuteThis guest article has been prepared by Stephanie Chan. Thanks a lot, Stephanie, for your contribution! If you would like more updates from her, make sure to follow her on Twitter.

Photo credit: The feature image “Korean Dancers” was done by USAG Humphreys. The photo “man jumping in the middle” was taken by Drew Graham.
Source: Brandon Doyle (Wallaroo Media) / The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (YouTube) / Historyworld / Aleksandra Andonovska (Vintage News) / Dance Tech TV (YouTube) / Thecla Schiphorst (thesis at SFU) / Marc Downie, Paul Kaiser (OpenEndedGroup) / Valencia James / Emilia Petrarca (Cut) / Evantheia Schibsted (Wired)