Man and machine: Bridging the gap through dance

An arts and engineering team is exploring the potential relationship between robotics and dance.

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

By Jayla McNeill
VCU School of the Arts

Last year, a new kind of dance performance was showcased at the Grace Street Theater. On stage were two dancers – Amelia Virtue, a Virginia Commonwealth University 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, who has a joint appointment in dance and choreography and kinetic imaging at the VCU School of the Arts, and Martin, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering in the VCU College of Engineering, received a VCU Breakthrough grant — which supports transdisciplinary teams — 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. 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.”

Meeting the challenge

The team’s first show, “Amelia and the Machine,” featured fully planned choreography. 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,” Virtue said. “Now, we’re doing more improv. 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 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 looked toward the work of famed choreographer William Forsythe, whose methods for dance improvisation can be applied to robotics. 

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.

Kate Sicchio, VCU School of the Arts

To help accomplish this, they worked with Noah Gelber, Forsythe’s assistant, to gain a better understanding of the choreographer’s improv 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, who graduated in 2022, was “excited” to work with Gelber. 

“You had to be very detail oriented,” she said. “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.”

“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].”

The team also includes dance junior Marrissa Schoeder, engineering Ph.D. candidate Charles Dietzel, electrical engineering graduate student Gabriella Graziani and several engineering undergraduates.

“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,” Sicchio said. “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.” 

A synergy of art and technology

Martin’s key research goal is to enable creative human robot teams. Working with Sicchio “challenges my team to handle all aspects of the human-robot interaction technology stack: sensing, perception, tasking and motion generation,” he said.

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

Despite the seemingly converse relationship, Sicchio and Martin said 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,” Sicchio aid. “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. 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.”