There is a scene u Swan Lake where the stocky crossbow protagonist, Prince Siegfried, loses his swan princess Odetta in an enchanted forest. Suddenly he is confronted with dozens of identical ballerina swans. Enchanted and confused, Siegfried runs uselessly up and down the rows of doubles looking for his fiancée. He is fascinated by the multitude of swans and the scale of their common, robotically precise movements.
With time Swan Lake premiered in the late 19th century, the princely protagonist’s confusion amid a crowd of synchronous ballerinas was already a trope. Romantic ballets are full of such moments, but they can also be found in more modern choreographies. American director Busby Berkeley has made a name for himself with films like 42nd Street on which were dozens of dancers who performed the same movements incredibly. In the last few decades, Rockettes and any number of boy bands have brought similar styles to the scene. And throughout history, military marches, parades and public demonstrations have carried out the strategy on the streets. Choreographic groups so that the part moves as a whole is both a technique and a tactic.
Through this cross-section of Venn’s diagram of ballets, boy groups and battalions we can consider “The spot is on it, “The latest dance video from a robotics manufacturer Boston Dynamics. The footage, which marks the company’s acquisition by Hyundai Motor Company, features four-legged “Spot” robots dancing to “IONIQ: I’m on It,” a song by Hyundai’s global ambassador and mega-boyband BTS, promoting the niche of the electric car series. In the video, several Spot robots jump with astonishing synchronicity in a likable, yet dystopian minute and 20 seconds.
The video opens with five robots in a row, one behind the other, so that only the front Spot is fully visible. The music begins: a new age in a rhythm aided by the clapping of phrases and BTS’s prayerful intonation of the word “IONIQ”. The robot’s heads rise and bloom with the music, flexibly forming into a swaying star, then a coil, then a floral pose that breathes a melodic line. Their ability of robotic precision allows otherwise simple gestures (raising the head, rotating 90 degrees, opening Spot’s “mouth”) to create a mirror complexity in all robot performers. “The spot is on it,” à la Busby Berkeley, makes it difficult to distinguish a robot, and it is sometimes unclear which “head” of a robot belongs to which robot body.
Monica Thomas’ choreography takes advantage of the robot’s ability to move right as one another. For Rockettes, BTS, and in many ballets, individual virtuosity is a function of one’s ability to move indistinguishably within a group. Spot robots, however, are functionally, kinesthetically and visually identical. Human performers can play in such a resemblance, but robots fully embody it. It’s Siegfried’s wondrous swan valley in the middle of a robot ballet.
From a technical perspective, the robot’s ability to vary movement shows the growing subtlety of Boston Dynamics’ choreographic software, a component of its Spot Development Software Package (SDK) aptly called “Choreography.” In it, the robot user can select a choreo-robotized sequence of movements such as “bourree” – which is defined in the SDK as “crossed legs like a ballet move” – and modify its relative speed, turn and length of stance. In the application throughout the dance, one move, such as “bourree”, can be turned, inverted, mirrored, performed wide or narrow, fast or slow, with increased or decreased distortion in the group. Thomas’ choreography makes full use of this ability to perform all kinds of kaleidoscopic effects.
Such complexity and subtlety mark “Spot’s on It” as a significant departure from previous dances in Boston Dynamics. First and foremost, it is clear that this video had a more intense production apparatus behind it: “Spot’s on It” was accompanied by friendly corporate blog post it speaks for the first time about how Boston Dynamics uses choreography in its marketing and engineering processes. This is, in particular, the first time that Thomas has been publicly recognized as a Boston Dynamics dance choreographer. Her work in viral videos like “Uptown Spot“I”Whether you love me?”It was made virtually invisible, so Boston Dynamics’ decision to underline Thomas ’role in this latest video is a significant shift in posture. Scientist Jessica Rajko previously pointed out the company’s opaque work policy and unclear reasons why Thomas is not credited, unlike choreo-robot researchers like Catie Cuan and Amy Laviers, who obviously put the dancers’ contribution to the forefront. “Spot’s on It” signals deepening, complicating Boston Dynamics’ engagement with choreography.
Although Boston Dynamics dance robots are currently pushed into the realm of branded spectacle, I am constantly impressed by the company’s choreographic steps. In the hands of artists, these machines become extremely capable of expression through performance. Boston Dynamics is a dance company that takes dance seriously and, according to its blog post, uses choreography as “a form of highly accelerated hardware life cycle testing.” All these dances should be fun i functional.