Presenting a minimalist set design paired with five uniformed dancers, and music reminiscent of the fifth element soundtrack, you can feel the strength and power of the performance art piece Discrete Figures 2019 within the first ten minutes. There were tears shed and jaws dropped due to the magnitude of power and beauty the performance brought the audience on May 17th 2019.
Hosted by Gray Area Theatre, Discrete Figures is a performance art experience created by Rhizomatiks Research x ELEVENPLAY x Kyle McDonald in collaboration with Heron Arts. It is described as ‘An expansive multidisciplinary collaboration between mathematicians, dancers, media artists, composers, and engineers, this complex experimental performance is truly the first of its kind.” – Gray Area
Josette Melchor welcomed the audience and performers with a warm speech, expressing deep gratitude for the support and presence of the San Francisco community, but especially to her mother, celebrating her birthday! It was the perfect beginning to a wonderful night under the spectacular original 1940s crown moldings of the fantastic historic architectural staple in San Francisco. As the lights dimmed and the crowd calmed, I sat in anticipation…
The power of the performance immediately had me in tears.This multi dimensional performance brings together skilled dancers, music, and cutting edge tech. Technology can be seen as cold and structured at times, but integrated with the dance performance and music, Discrete Figures changes the tone around technology into something much more organic and fluid. Discrete figures is said to explore the interrelationships between the performing arts and mathematics/technology, giving rise to mathematical/ technological entities that engage with the bodies of human dancers on stage.
“Alan Turing applied mathematics to disembody the brain from its corporeal host. He sought to expand his body, transplanting his being into an external vessel. In a sense, he sought to replicate himself in mechanical form. Turing saw his computers as none other than bodies (albeit mechanical), irrevocably connected to his own flesh and blood. Although onlookers would see a sharp delineation between man and machine, in his eyes, this progeny did not constitute a distant Other. Rather, he was the father of a “living machine,” a veritable extension of his own body, and a mirror onto the act of performing living, breathing mathematics.”
— Daito Manabe
The choreography from dance group ElevenPlay cascaded perfectly with the hard hitting beats that felt like a mix of the fifth element soundtrack and 90s detroit tekno, making for the perfect composition to push power into every bit of the performance. As an added additional layer of complexity, the performance piece utilizes drones, A.I., and machine learning in the quest for a new palette of movement.
Now let’s get to the tech:
An interview with our skilled and spirited Creative technologist
How would you describe the performance?
I was lucky to see the performance last year as well as this year. Some of the changes made the overall narrative much clearer. I think the overall story is about computers learning to truly see and understand humans. I think the performance as a whole can be seen as a collaborative choreography between machines and dancers.
It is worth pointing out how something has changed in the interval between last year’s performance and this one: there is much more awareness of AI, surveillance and face detection, and it has become controversial. Whereas last year it was possible to see the show as an entertainment, this year it had much more resonance with current issues. There was a sinister undertone to the process of the machine building an increasingly more accurate avatar.
What tech did you notice throughout the performance?
One of the most noticeable technologies was accurate projection mapping onto objects. Another key technology that was introduced gradually was computer vision, and specifically the computer learning to “see” and understand human bodies. Object tracking was used to identify a camera and then add virtual objects into a real video feed. The same object tracking system was also used to track the dancers and the projection frames that they were holding. Finally, synchronized drones played an important role.
Some of the technology elements were quite subtle. For example, the system was able to track the dancer’s hands by detecting IR reflective polish on their fingernails, and their heads by looking for their earrings! I think the synchronization of performers, cameras and a virtual dancer was really intricate. The attention to detail and perfect execution was outstanding, in the scene where a real dancer interacts with a virtual dancer. Did you notice that the virtual dancer was casting a shadow on the stage? I believe that the compositing of the scene was done live, and the actions of the virtual dancer may have been choreographed ahead of time.
Did the performance inspire you? and what was the most inspirational moment for you?
At a previous performance, I was extremely impressed at a moment when the human dancers step out from behind their frames, and watch their virtual avatars perform, before joining them in the dance. I was also very impressed by the duet between human dancers and virtual dancers, captured by the moving camera. This was a magical moment for practically all spectators, when they realize the video is showing performers that are not there in real life.
This was clearly an experience that made “magic” happen through technology, and that is a big part of our daily life at Britelite. I think we would be very excited to use these systems to enable participation and interaction by a wider audience!
Britelite recommends Discrete Figures 2019, 10/10 would be amazed again, get that ticket! Gray Area Theatre is the perfect home for these kind of performance art pieces, fostering digital artist with a space to learn, perform, and connect in our San Francisco community is essential to the development of more art + tech! Britelite is excited to be part of this community, and attending Discrete Figures was a testament to all the great work that Gray Area does. Gray Area foundation for the arts truly combines art and technology for culture!