Man and Machine: Bridging the gap through dance

By Jayla McNeill

Last year, a new kind of dance performance was showcased at the Grace Street Theater. On stage were two dancers – Amelia Virtue, a VCUarts dance major, and Isadora, a high-tech robot. During the performance, they danced together, acting out carefully planned choreography before an enraptured audience. The performance was a massive success. Now, VCU professors Kate Sicchio, Ph.D. and Patrick Martin, Ph.D are building on that success by putting phase two of their project into motion by asking a question: can dancers and robots improvise dance together? 

Sicchio (joint appointment in dance + choreography and kinetic imaging at VCUarts) and Martin (College of Engineering) had been working together prior to  receiving a VCU Breakthrough grant in 2022 to explore the potential relationship between robotics and dance. 

“When I first arrived at VCU, I had some conceptual discussions with [Sicchio] about how we could combine her method for programming humans and my approaches for programming teams of robots,” Martin said.  

“Working across disciplines is challenging, but really rewarding,” he continued. “It is one of my favorite projects and working with [Sicchio] has been a blast. We seem to come up with new ideas every time we have a meeting.”

The team’s first show, Amelia and the Machine, featured fully planned choreography. Currently, the team is working on a new show that will include two dancers and a robot improvising movement on stage together. 

“Before, we [had] choreography set into the robot and we would practice it and we would do it the same every time. Now, we’re doing more improv,” Virtue explained. “It is interesting moving with the robot … because the robot doesn’t always go where you think it’s going to go.”

According to Sicchio, this goal marks a significant challenge as everyone involved in the performance–robots and dancers alike–will need to know where everything is in space. For the choreography, Sicchio and Martin are looking toward the work of famed choreographer William Forsythe, to examine how his methods for dance improvisation can be applied to robotics. 

To help accomplish this, they invited Noah Gelber, Forsythe’s choreographic assistant, to work with the group on Forsythe’s improv techniques. Gelber came to VCU for three days to work with the team and help them gain a better understanding of Forsythe’s methods and techniques.

“I am most excited about gaining a deeper understanding of Forsythe’s improvisation technologies methodology, which I believe will inform how my team develops creative motion and task planning with human partners,” Martin said. 

Virtue, a VCUarts Dance + Choreography alum (B.F.A. ‘22)  said she was very “excited” to be working with Gelber. 

“You had to be very detail oriented,” said Virtue. “You had to be very articulate with the movement. It was hard, honestly. … We had certain points to go off of. It was a lot of geometry.”

Dance junior Marrissa Schoeder also collaborates with Sicchio and Martin on this project.

“I keep saying to them ‘you are the expert movers’ and the robots really need you,” Sicchio said. “A big role that they have is bringing their movement knowledge that they’ve been gaining through their studies [at VCUarts].”

In addition, Martin mentors two graduate students (Charles Dietzel a, engineering Ph.D candidate and Gabriella Graziani, a masters student in Electrical Engineering) and four undergraduate students on this project.

“My graduate students primarily investigate the algorithms for motion generation for these complex robots and my undergraduate students integrate sensors, maintain code and support performance planning and testing,” Martin said. 

Both groups work closely together in a series of workshops and exercises designed to advance the engineers’ understanding of human movement and improvisation and deepen the dancers’ understanding of the ways in which the robot could express complex movements and dance. 

“We did a few exercises… where [the dancers] would demonstrate a movement and the engineers would try to express it with just their arm as if they were the robot arm. We would do this back and forth of the dancers sort of riffing off whatever motion [the engineers] did with their arm and also adding the Forsythe movement and approaches,” said Sicchio. 

“This project is directly coupled to my lab’s key research goal to enable creative human robot teams,” said Martin. “It challenges my team to handle all aspects of the human-robot interaction technology stack: sensing, perception, tasking and motion generation.”

Last month, the team put on three teaser performances to showcase the new advancements in the project. 

The performances were held at The Anderson in front of live audiences. Each performance featured two dancers, Isadora and a guest performer from the audience. Sicchio was live coding the dancers (who were wearing haptics on their arms) and the robot at the same time, giving them general directions which the dancers would then interpret.  

“We had different pulses to tell us where to go. Then the robot would either follow us or try to get away from us. That was kind of the improv part,” said Virtue. “We didn’t know what arm was going to buzz or where we were going to go.”

Sicchio and Martin said that despite the seemingly converse relationship there is actually a synergy between the mediums of art and technology, which has become apparent with this project.

“When we’re working on making new movement algorithms on the engineering side, that comes from making a new choreography and vice versa…,” said Sicchio. “When we make a new advancement on the engineering side, that feeds into the dance and the choreography in a meaningful way.”

“One of the things that’s interesting about this project is that it’s not like dance is just serving engineering or that engineering is just serving dance performance,” said Sicchio. “Martin and I have really found this symbiotic relationship between the art and the technology, which, I think, doesn’t happen often. We’ve really stumbled upon a special collaboration.”

Lead image: A still from Amelia and the Machine, 2022. (Image provided by Kate Sicchio).

Video: From Together//Apart at The Anderson on January 24, 2023. Featured dancers: Amelia Virtue and Marrissa Schoeder. Video production by Taylor Colimore. Music by Tom Hopkins. (Video provided by Taylor Colimore).