Creativity and technology converge in unique dance collaboration

Creativity and technology converge with stunning results in a unique collaboration between two of the nation’s leading arts schools: Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) and York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD).

Upon invitation from Kevin MacLeod, manager of Digital Media and Learning Technologies at NBS, AMPD Professors Don Sinclair, chair of the Department of Computational Arts, and Doug Van Nort, Canada Research Chair in Digital Performance, teamed up with NBS choreographer and Assemblée Internationale 2017 Co-Director Shaun Amyot to create ORIGIN8, an interactive dance work premiering in Toronto May 5 & 6.

NBS students rehearse “ORIGIN8”, a dance created by choreographer Shaun Amyot in collaboration with AMPD professors Don Sinclair and Doug Van Nort, which integrates sensor technology to generate sound and visuals through the performers’ movements.

In ORIGIN8, each of the performers wears a Myo band, a wireless sensor technology developed by Waterloo-based Thalmic Labs, that measures the movements and speed of the human body in motion. Using customized machine-learning software integrating a custom-made sound-performance interface and 3D graphics generator created by the AMPD artist-researchers, data captured from the dancers’ movements generates dramatic, kinetic image projections and an ever-changing musical soundscape.

“Working with Canada’s National Ballet School has been an extremely rewarding and highly collaborative experience,” said Sinclair. “Shaun [Amyot] and Kevin [MacLeod] have been very supportive of our process of exploration, which involves new technology being used in innovative, experimental ways.  I’m so excited to see our work being realized in this production.”

ORIGIN8 will be featured in a showcase performance that is the culmination of the Assemblée Internationale 2017 (AI 17) – a week-long festival hosted by NBS that brings together students and artistic staff from 21 professional ballet schools around the world. One student from each school has been chosen to participate in ORIGIN8, making it a truly international production.

The project has also been an exceptional experiential learning opportunity for several York students. The software and media used in ORIGIN8 were developed by Sinclair and Van Nort with the assistance of three AMPD students who are members of the DisPerSion Lab at York. The lab, founded and directed by Van Nort, is dedicated to research-creation projects focusing on instrumental and gestural expression, embodied perception, time consciousness and performative agency.

Ian Jarvis, a PhD candidate in Theatre & Performance Studies and Van Nort’s graduate assistant, created a software tool to capture and play back multiple streams of sensor data. Fourth-year Computational Arts student and research assistant Rory Hoy helped implement the software to transmit the data from the bank of seven computers collecting data from the Myo sensors to the media-generating computers in the control booth.

Kieran Maraj, who has just completed his second year of studies in York’s Digital Media program and is also a research assistant in the DisPerSion Lab, was hired to help set up and run the tech for ORIGIN8.  “It’s been a pleasure to work with my professors and the team at Canada’s National Ballet School to bring this performance together,” he said. “The merging of sound, visuals and movement has been an exciting opportunity to apply the knowledge I’ve gained in my classes to a real-world performative context. “

Van Nort echoed Maraj’s and Sinclair’s appreciation of the collegial experience and creative scope of the initiative.  “I very much value the collaborative process that brought us here, including the student members of my lab who have contributed such robust customized software tools to help develop ORIGIN8”, he said. “While I’ve done interactive music composition for dance pieces before, it’s never been on a scale as large as this: using machine learning to sense movements from 21 dancers. And considering those dancers arrived from 11 different countries just one week before the performance, the project presented both an interesting research challenge and a rich context for artistic expression. It’s been amazing to see it come together.”

ORIGIN8 will be presented as the finale of a mixed program of works by NBS alumni choreographers at the Betty Oliphant Theatre on Friday, May 5 at 7:30pm and reprised Sat. May 6 at 1:30pm. The show is sold out, but the performances will be live-streamed. To watch the production online, go to the livestream feed on the NBS website.