Dancing into Wearable Technology
Brooklyn Ballet artistic director, Lynn Parkerson, wanted her ballet company’s version of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” to reflect the diverse community surrounding it. Not only does she incorporate pop-and-lock dancers along with waltzes, but also enlisted the help of NYC Resistor, a local hacking collective, to bring wearable technology to a classical ballet holiday production.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is sacred,” says Parkerson, who founded the contemporary ballet company in 2002. Brooklyn Ballet is a relatively new company, and while Parkerson wants to keep with tradition, she wants her production to be different. And she turned to technology to augment and enhance various aspects of her choreography.
Technology Tracking Dancers
A couple of years ago, Parkerson wanted to show dancers’ movements from a different perspective. She turned to a local biomechanical engineer who had taken a ballet class. As it turned out, this engineer was also a member of NYC Resistor where collaborative technology problems and projects are regularly shared. The project caught the attention of Nick Vermeer, who manages the sales engineering department of a telecommunications company, is an active member of the hacker collective, and “a huge ballet fan,” in his words.
Using USB webcams mounted to the above-stage lighting grid, open source software, available on-hand computers and a zero-dollar budget, Vermeer and team crafted an intricate means to behind the onstage dancers in real time. The webcams tracked the dancer movement and converted the data into multi-touch data. They chose multi-touch, data that comes from a tablet or a trackpad, because interfaces for this data type already existed and could be easily simulated for testing. From there, a second program generated visual effects in real time. They later added a lighting board controller for the iPad to control the visualizations.
Parkerson wanted to take the technology further in other dance productions. As she saw projected stars on the back screen, she thought these to be like snowflakes, which added another dimension to the dance and made her think about the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s an interesting experiment,” says Parkerson. “We had this backdrop that was related to what the dancers were doing. You would see the dancers do something and then in the back, you would see something related. We were trying to keep the choreography and the content front and center and then adding this overlay.”
Sensors in Costumes Can Have Issues
The technology moved from the stage screen and onto the dancers themselves for two dances in the Brooklyn Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.” NYC Resistor members, Nick Vermeer, Billie Ward and Olivia Barr crafted LED-sparkling tutus for the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and an accelerometer-embedded, illuminated shirt specifically for a pop-and-lock Drosselmeyer, the magician in “The Nutcracker.”
The tutus had three main components apart from the various layers of tulle, the controller (a Teensy 2.0 that has an Arduino-compatible development environment), an MPU-6050 SparkFun motion sensor board, and six strings of RGB architectural LEDs. Vermeer has placed the initial Arduino tutu controller code on GitHub for others to use freely.
The construction was not without issues, says Vermeer. They had difficulties in choosing a conductive wire for the electronics. Many of the available wire options were too brittle or not solderable. The team finally landed on robotics sensor wire that was extremely flexible, “like wet spaghetti,” explains Vermeer.
“The biggest problem we encountered with the tutus was that we didn’t anticipate the amount of static electricity they would generate,” says Vermeer. “There are several different layers of tulle, and they are different types of tulle. Well, when you rub two dissimilar materials together they generate a static charge, so the controller chip that is on-die on the LED has no or minimal ESD [electrostatic discharge] protection so every single performance, the dancers would kill a strip or two of the LEDs so we would have to go in and cut out the LED and replace it.”
The Pexel shirt, with embedded accelerometers in the pectoral area and wrists, and the pop-and-lock Drosselmeyer dancer, Mike “Supreme” Fields, also had technical barriers to overcome. It had to be designed to be flexible yet tight-fitting enough to detect the popper’s chest movements. But this posed issues as Fields literally popped out all of the wires and solder joints when he first wore it. Designer Olivia Barr had to find a material that was stretchy enough and still fit the body perfectly but did not stretch the wires within.
“With wearables, that’s one of the main problems,” says Barr. “There are all kinds of things you don’t expect. When you are doing a thing that is a wearable, you are in constant motion. You have to worry about things like static, sweat and movement – all kinds of things that can short you out and break you down.”
Traditional and Modern Trends Merge
Will wearable technology further integrate into classical ballet? Trends are “pointe”-ing in that direction, literally. Barcelona-based, product designer Lesia Trubat González, who has experience in graphic and industrial design as well as communications, created technology to work with ballet pointe shoes to track a dancer’s movements and convert them into brush strokes on a digital screen.
“This was my starting point because I had already worked with dance gestures, traces and motion before, inspired by a lot of dancers who already use their motion for creating art,” says González. “I am an amateur ballet dancer, and I am also very interested in technology. After research I could see how technology is starting to be implemented in the world of dance.”
Brooklyn Ballet’s Parkerson knows of González’s sensor-enabled ballet shoes. “We have been talking about doing some version of that too. We are also thinking about the pointe shoe and that pressure when you step into a pique arabesque, if you could visualize that would be a really interesting thing to show.”
“We at the ballet company want to keep the tradition and beautiful magical quality that is the story, and the technology is to just enhance that, whether it is stars in the sky or glistening snowflakes, or pop-and-lock dancers,” says Parkerson. “[Technology] is great for pop-and-lock dancers because their movements are very small. For me, pop-and-lock dancers are really the character dancers of our day. So instead of the classical pantomime, we are kind of taking the urban vernacular forms, so there is a real practical use of the technology for those dancers, otherwise you don’t see it on a big stage…the technology can sense very small micro-movements.
“We are trying to bring new things to the form,” says Parkerson, “and see what happens to the form when we do that.”