Margaret Fuhrer: Hi dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.
Lydia Murray: And I’m Lydia Murray.
Margaret Fuhrer: We are editors at Dance Media, back with a headline episode for the first time in almost a month, which means we have a lot of news to discuss. So, we’ll start by running down all of those top dance stories, including everything from Actors’ Equity’s new PAC, to the big shake up at “Dancing with the Stars.” And then we’ll slow down for a segment about two articles that consider how we turn bodily movement into data, and how that data can be used and in fact is already used once it’s collected. That’s a bit of a different tack for us, on the podcast, but it is fascinating stuff and the potential consequences here are very, very, real! So, Lydia and I are going to do our best.
Before we get into all of that though, here’s a little plug for our next interview episode, which will be out a week from today. It’s a conversation with a returning guest, good friend of the pod Phil Chan. Phil, as many of you probably know, has a new book out called Banishing Orientalism, which considers how Orientalist ballets might be reimagined for diverse 21st century audiences. So he talks about that process, and then he also talks about his own choreography and about the expectations and challenges that come with being an activist who also makes art. As always with Phil, it’s a fantastic conversation, so I hope you’ll tune in for that episode. Again, that’s next Thursday, April 13th.
Okay, let’s get into this very meaty group of headlines that we have.
Lydia Murray: Indeed! Actors’ Equity is launching a political action committee this month ahead of the 2024 election. It aims to contribute money to federal candidates who support Actors’ Equity priorities, including more arts funding, expanded health care coverage, protecting the right to organize, and specific entertainment legislation like the performing artist tax parity act.
Margaret Fuhrer: An interesting development! We’ll be keeping our eyes on that. Here’s another story from the intersection of dance and politics. Last week, Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company joined the historic general strike in protest of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned overhaul of the country’s judiciary. Netanyahu has since announced that he will delay the controversial judicial reforms, and the company has now returned to its normal performance schedule.
Lydia Murray: The Smash musical, based on the NBC television series, will come to Broadway in the 2024-2025 season. It will be directed by Susan Stroman.
Margaret Fuhrer: Feels like musical theater Twitter like, willed that show into existence.
Lydia Murray: It really does!
Margaret Fuhrer: But I’m very much here for it. Also excited that not only do we have Susan Stroman directing but also Josh Bergasse returning to choreograph, who also of course choreographed the television series.
Speaking of TV dance, Tyra Banks has announced that she is leaving dancing with the stars after 3 seasons as host. She plans to focus instead on her business ventures, including her SMiZE and Dream ice cream product—which just a moment of appreciative silence there for the fact that Tyra Banks has an ice cream business called SMiZE and Dream. A familiar face will be replacing her: Julianne Hough, a former pro dancer and judge on the show, is the new co-host.
Lydia Murray: Stella Abrera is the ABT JKO School’s new artistic director. She has been acting in the role for the past several months, after serving as the artistic director of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York.
Margaret Fuhrer: Now it’s officially official! Big congrats to Stella, that’s such good news.
Actually, this is an unusually upbeat headline rundown—here’s some more happy news. Late last month president Biden presented the International Association of Blacks in Dance. a National Medal of Arts, which is the government’s highest arts award. That is so well deserved. Dance Magazine did a story on that, that we have linked to in the show notes.
Lydia Murray: Amazing news! And Misty Copeland will receive this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance award. The award provides 25,000 dollars to an artist of exceptional vision and achievement.
Margaret Fuhrer: Which is Misty in a nutshell! Congrats to her.
History was made at the Paris Opéra Ballet recently. Dancer Guillaume Diop became the company’s first Black étoile. The 23-year-old standout actually skipped over the company’s premiere rank, the rank that typically precedes étoile—that is extremely rare! Love to see it. Jose Martinez, the Paris Opéra’s new director, has been really making some big moves since his appointment last fall.
Lydia Murray: So well deserved! Kinsun Chan will become the artistic director of the Dresden’s Semperoper Opera Ballet of the beginning of the 2024-2025 season. He will succeed Aaron S. Watkin, who moves to the English National Ballet after 17 years in Dresden. Congratulations there.
Margaret Fuhrer: Congratulations are also in order for this years Erik Bruhn Prize winners. Stuttgart Ballet soloist Mackenzie Brown and The Royal Ballet artist Daichi Ikarashi earned the top honors at the annual competition, which showcases promising dancers between the ages of 18 and 23. Stuttgart ballet artist in residence Roman Novitzky was also awarded this years choreographic prize for his contemporary duet, “A Dialogue.”
Lydia Murray: Vail Dance Festival this year will have Adji Cissoko as its artist in residence. Ten choreographers and four composers will create new works for a roster of dancers, including ABT principals Calvin Royal III, Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, as well as the jookin star Lil’ Buck, New York City ballet principals Sara Mearns, Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia, the contemporary dancer Melissa Toogood and the former city ballet principals Lauren Lovette and Robert Fairchild.
Margaret Fuhrer: Lots of familiar names there. Here is some promising news from the movie world. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced the creation of a new Production and Technology branch, which will include people working in the key technical and production positions. That encompasses, and this is why we’re invested, choreographers. The choreographers currently in the Academy—there aren’t that many, but there are a few—they were previously classified as members at large. So, the creation of this branch might, first of all, pave the way for more choreographers to make it into the Academy. That in turn might help the long-simmering campaign to establish an Oscar for Best Choreography. A lot of dance world folks have been banging that drum for a while, and rightfully so. So stay tuned.
Lydia Murray: Exciting development there. New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Miami City Ballet have announced their new seasons. New York City Ballet’s spring season will be held from April 18 through May 28. The spring gala will feature world premieres by Alysa Pires, in her first work for the company, and by Christopher Wheeldon. At PNB, highlights will include a world premiere by Danielle Rowe, and the company’s premiere of the full length version of 1000 Pieces by Alejandro Cerrudo. And last but not least, Miami City Ballet’s season will begin on October 20, and will feature Balanchine’s Serenade, Tharp’s In The Upper Room, and a world premiere by Jamar Roberts.
Margaret Fuhrer: And we are closing out the rundown today with an obituary for Stuart Hodes, who recently died at age 98. Hodes danced for Martha Graham in the 1940s and 50s, and went on to become a choreographer and an educator and administrator and an author. But before discovering dance, Hodes was a fighter pilot in World War II, and I wanted to end with this wonderful quote that he gave to PBS about a year ago: “I felt that dancing and flying are two ways of getting to the same state. I think anything you do with every particle of yourself can be wonderful, and it can make you forget the world. It’s magic.”
So that’s the end of our headline rundown this episode. But please don’t forget to check out the Dance Media Events Calendar, because it has a lot more information about all kinds of dance world happenings. So, to see the full list and to add your own events to it, because you can do that to, head to dancemediacalendar.com.
Okay, so for our discussion segment this week, we wanted to look at two recent articles about how we turn movement into data and how that data can and should be used. So, the first story ran in The Conversation, and it discussed the developing field of kinesemiotics, or how movement makes meaning. A new project called “The Kinesemiotic Body” is currently underway at England’s Loughborough University in collaboration with researchers at the University of Bremen, and then also the English National Ballet. ENB dancers have been wearing sensors that allow the researchers to capture not only their movements, but also the potential intended meaning behind each movement, by analyzing how the body is interacting with the space and with other people around it.
The second story, a big alarm bell of a story, ran in Oregon ArtsWatch, and it’s an essay by dance artist Katherine Longstreth warning that AI technology is already gathering all kinds of data on how we move, without motion capture suits, simply by trolling the video that’s already available. And she argues that artists who work with the body, dance artists in particular, are already experiencing the consequences of that kind of data collection—that big data is essentially mining our bodily creativity for profit.
So, how should we think about the translation of dance into data? How might it help us understand dance’s singular ability to communicate, and how might it exploit that ability or even make it less human, in a way?
Lydia Murray: So to begin, I’ll outline those two pieces quickly. As the conversation piece discusses, “The Kinesemiotic Body” draws from the Functional Grammar of Dance, or FGD, which explains how body parts create meaning by interacting with the space and people who surround dancers in a performance. The FGD is based on projections, which are the trajectories that dancers design when they extend their limbs toward meaningful parts of the performance space. Projections connect extended body parts to surrounding people or objects, which creates a meaningful visual interaction. And projections can also be directed to the audience, which would create the effect of involvement—for example, by extending a hand or a leg toward the audience while facing them and breaking the fourth wall. Projections are described as being like speech bubbles made by movement.
So, during this research, dancers wore sensor suits, and the researchers annotated the data that the suits produced. So, through the recordings and the annotations, the researchers could find the movements and the intended meaning behind them. And in the future, this team wants their work to examine whether specific projections can help audiences with different degrees of familiarity with dance to more easily engage with a dance performance, which I found interesting.
And then shifting to the Oregon ArtsWatch story, that author pointed out that in the past, there hasn’t been a lot of money to be made in dance, and movement sequences haven’t really been able to be significantly monetized. But AI is changing that and developments in AI threaten to worsen the long-running issues with copyright and choreography. For example, technological advances are making it easier to create video generated from other work without the creator’s permission. And the potential issues don’t end with dance. The author also addresses the privacy concerns of our bodies being mined for data in increasingly expansive and invasive ways.
Margaret Fuhrer: Yeah, there’s so much in both of these articles—of course, we have both linked in the show notes, so you can read them in their entirety, and I hope you do.
It was interesting to me that part of the impetus for the “Kinesemiotic Body” study is to make dance performances more accessible to audience members who are not specialists. I mean, we often talk about dance as being a universal language, because it doesn’t involve spoken language and sort of transcends that that language barrier that we think about. And yet, for a lot of audience members, it doesn’t feel that way, it can feel very opaque, and creating a system that can translate movements that might be opaque to audience members—how might that then apply in other contexts, like as that kind of data gathering gives us a better sense of the messages our movements are sending, how might we be able to use that to improve our bodily communication in non-dance scenarios?
But yeah, that’s data being collected from a small group of consenting adults in a narrow study. What about the extraction of movement-related data from video, usually without the knowledge of its creator? I’ve been reading a lot about those text-to-video AI generators that have been trained on a whole bunch of existing human-created video, and can already do something like take the prompt, you know, “Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson eating rocks,” and turn it into a video. And like, clearly, it’s one thing for celebrities and like film production companies, which are relatively powerful, to lose a measure of control over their work, even though that’s still disturbing. But what about dance artists, who have so little power to begin with? What happens when that sort of technology starts making use of their creativity in their content?
Lydia Murray: Right, it’ll be interesting, definitely from an intellectual property perspective. And I’m thinking about some of these movements that are happening right now, like JaQuel Knight’s work with, you know, crediting choreographers and how this will tie into that. And also, I think it’s interesting, kind of going back towards sort of the beginning of this, in terms of sensory data and using that to help make dance more accessible to audiences. I’m curious about how that might work, in terms of what devices might be built. I know one of the pieces mentioned the aides that are currently available at museums, for example, that help describe work of art and visual art, how all of these developments will help with that sort of concept but just apply it to dance.
Margaret Fuhrer: Yeah, it’s really easy to start going to scary places when we’re thinking about, you know what, like the military or like intelligence fields might do with this data, or like, Lord help us, the pornography industry. But it is important to think about the potential positive impact of these developments too. Like, I think the Oregon ArtsWatch piece mentions that we could potentially use it to create hyper-accurate dance notation, which is fascinating to think about. Or maybe it could become a really powerful tool in the medical field. To make another connection between the two stories, in the kinesemiotics story, the researchers mentioned that the information they’re gathering might eventually be useful for physical rehabilitation purposes, since it’s identifying patterns in the mechanics of the body at work, which I thought was really neat.
But yeah, I guess, to go back to the other side, before we can get too excited about those positive applications, it does seem like we need to demand more transparency and accountability from companies about how they’re collecting and using that data. And much better regulation of the data collection that’s already happening. And—this is especially important for dance creators—just much better protection for the artists whose movements have already begun to be co-opted and monetized by others.
Lydia Murray: Right. And I think this development is kind of a bit further along in other areas, like for visual art, for example, with the rise of tools like Midjourney, and AI based tools being available to help generate images, and they essentially take pieces of images that are already on the internet and use those and are trained on those to create new images. And there’s not currently a way to—or at least not, you know, kind of a mainstream or widespread way—to get the rights to the original images that the new ones are based on. So even though that, you know, it’s putting artists in a really unfortunate situation, perhaps the dance industry can sort of learn from what’s happening there and can follow those developments to kind of create a better framework. Because AI, of course, is only going to become more advanced, and it will affect the dance world, and it will continue to be something that we can use, as Margaret said, it doesn’t have to be entirely a negative thing, but those legal concerns are there.
Margaret Fuhrer: Yeah. I mean, there are multiple dissertations to be written—probably already in the process of being written—about all of this. Again, in the show notes we have links to the two stories that we mentioned, which are absolutely worth a read. Because yes, these questions apply to dance, but also to many fields beyond dance.
Alright, that’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. We’ll be back in two weeks for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.
Lydia Murray: Bye everyone!