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Spellbinding Yet Unnerving: A Theatrical Performance Created With AI

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After leaving the theater and returning home a few blocks away, I found myself sitting on my couch in the dark, trying to comprehend what it was I had just seen. What had I experienced? I felt torn. Whatever it was, it was equal parts captivating and disquieting. Spellbinding yet unnerving. Like a drug trip, the experience was at times aesthetically pleasing; at others, anxiety-producing.

Further, the entire spectacle, which swung wildly between discord and harmony, was choreographed by an inanimate apparatus. The five human performers were but cogs in the machine, pawns in a game of computer chess. What should I make of this brave new art world? How might I write about it? Should I use ChatGPT?

* * *

A&I, which launched on Friday, April 19th at The Voxel in Baltimore, integrated experimental dance, an ambient soundscape, minimalist stage design, and innovative lighting techniques with a high-tech concept. As its title suggests, the performance, though executed by human dancers, was performed with Artificial Intelligence (AI).

The ampersand in its title, sitting snugly between the A and I (sans spaces), hints at the hybrid nature of the show. A&I blurs the line between the objective and the subjective; the technological and the biological; the dystopian and the utopian. Such grand dualities may not have been on the minds of the show’s carbon-based creative directors, Orange Grove Dance’s Colette Krogol and Matt Reeves, but Luna, the silicon-based AI that controlled the performance in real-time, pierced directly into the heart of the human condition during its unveiling at The Voxel in Baltimore last month, its “Beta debut.”

 

A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Kiirstn Pagan
A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Chris Ashworth

Its. Is the gender-neutral, animate-denying “its” politically correct when addressing generative AI? Does AI have a preferred pronoun? Will machines and robots one day become Othered? Have they not already? Can machines truly create? And if so, how should we credit or honor their productions? What of the humans involved? On a long enough timeline, will any of these questions even matter? 

These are the thoughts that turn inside my head while I sit alone in the dark, pondering how to process what I had just witnessed. No doubt there were moments of sublime beauty in A&I, where the dancers’ bodies flowed into one another in baroque streams of limbs like water come to life.

At times, I felt as though I were trapped inside a nightmare; at others, a placid dream. At still other instances, the dancers, syncing up with the soundscape, slowed to a near halt, their bodies barely gesturing at all, the theater dark and silent. Then, lights would flicker on, the score would rise once again, and everything would build up into another audiovisual crescendo. 

The experience was not unlike that of listening to a symphony. There was no plot or dialogue to follow, so I would drift away now and then, lost in my own thoughts, only to be pulled back into the abstract drama when things intensified again. During these lulls, calms before each storm, my thoughts would wander: Is this the future of performance art or a glimpse into its demise? Does AI lend itself especially well to dance? What about other art forms? The pageant would shift once again, as if in response to these queries, as if reading my thoughts. Perhaps these were the wrong questions. Why would anyone question anything anymore?

 

A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Chris Ashworth
A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Jonathan Hsu
At The Voxel, A&I negotiated an equilibrium between order and chaos, transcending both to become high art. 
Dereck Mangus

Occasionally, the dancers would congregate at one end of a wooden dinner table placed at center stage to consult a device with a pulsing blue light that sat, Siri-like, on the opposite end. They posed their own questions to it: “Luna: It’s me. Luna: Can you hear me?,” as if seeking directives from their digital oracle, which indeed they were. They were tied to its destiny, as it was tied to their own. Towards the end of the show, a dancer asked, “Luna: What happens next?”

Nearby Luna, a tall vertical lamp hung just above the table and alternated colors and intensities throughout the performance, at times blinding the audience of about 70 people. Other linear and spherical lamps were lit and lowered at different phases of the show.

During one particularly clever vignette, a bright yellow bulb lit up high in the rafters was slowly lowered to the stage. When first apprehended by the dancers, they worshiped this distant star with outstretched arms, as though it were the ancient Sun. As the golden orb made its way to the stage floor, the dancers lay down around it to admire the more humble beauty the Sun permits, that of a flower, perhaps a sunflower. 

At the rear of the stage stood four flatscreen monitors, vertically oriented like the way we hold our smartphones. The screens displayed pixelated patterns and quasi-abstract imagery that complemented the dancers’ movements. At times, they stood behind these monitors, their bodies’ motions synching up with mimetic visuals appearing on the displays like avant-garde X-rays. The dancers, lamps, screens, and sounds combined into a contemporary version of the gesamtkunstwerk

At its most unnerving, A&I took on a rather Orwellian aspect. During one of the show’s more disturbing segments, distorted images of blurry-faced, nameless citizens appeared in grayscale on the four screens from a low angle, as if looking down onto the audience. Atonal chords—like those heard in the more discordant tracks by the British electronic musician Aphex Twin—droned on in the background while the dancers’ motions became more mechanical, like robots, making them feel eerily inhuman. 

At one point, the monitors showed what appeared to be slow-motion footage of the boosters of a rocketship about to blast off. Just as I was thinking of it, the audio shifted into a creeping organ-sound reminiscent of Philip Glass’s score at the beginning (and end) of Koyaanisquatsi.

Was this homage? Can generative AI make an homage? Or, is it always derivative—quite literally—in the sense that it can only ever respond within the parameters set for it by its human enablers? 

In one of the most poignant sequences of A&I, hidden lamps beneath the table lit up for this scene. A camera was also hidden below the table, aimed at the floor whose illuminated surface appeared on the four screens. The dancers, one by one, made their way below the table, embracing one another once there and looking up under the table, as if into the sky, their beaming faces looking out from the monitors at the audience. 

The soundscape became layered here with radio transmissions between two astronauts working on a space station in orbit. The banal, operational back-and-forths of the spacemen accompanying the scene beneath the table where the dancers lay engendered a strange sensation, where the space of the theater felt somehow reduced and expanded at the same time. The overall effect was optimistic. It pointed towards a more hopeful future, one in which human beings and their creations might work in tandem to build a better world for all. 

* * *

A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Jonathan Hsu
A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Chris Ashworth

Back in my apartment, while sussing out my thoughts after the show, I kept returning to The Birth of Tragedy. In that seminal text, Friedrich Nietzsche articulates how Ancient Greek tragedy succeeded in reconciling two opposing forces: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Apollo is the Greek god of balance, light, and order, while Dionysus represents chaos, drunken revelry, and religious ecstasy.

In The Birth of Tragedy, his first book, Nietzsche outlines how the perfect synthesis of these two essences is necessary for great art and, by extension, the ideal society. He found in Ancient Greek tragedy, the supreme balance of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. If art leans too far in one direction, it becomes too orderly and rigid; too far in the other, amorphous and chaotic. In other words, the Apollonian, if left unchecked, runs the risk of becoming fascistic, while the Dionysian, if unordered, quickly devolves into pandemonium.

Thus, Nietzsche argues, it ought to be the goal of artists (and society as a whole) to strike a balance between the two, never allowing the worst tendencies of either to overcome its counterpart.

That is exactly what A&I did during its debut at The Voxel: it negotiated an equilibrium between order and chaos, transcending both to become high art. 

* * *

A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Kiirstn Pagan
A&I at the Voxel, Photo by Chris Ashworth

I have to admit that when my friend invited me out to see A&I last month, I had my reservations. I know next to nothing about avant-garde dance, and have serious concerns about artificial intelligence and its implications for human existence. I suppose I’m something of a cynic, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to be not only entertained by A&I, but also deeply stirred, both emotionally and intellectually.

What potential does generative AI hold for the future of art? What about the human race as a whole? Could AI be the ex machina that saves us from our own human tragedy? It’s hard to say. As the program notes to A&I point out, AI is already here in many ways:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is readily abundant in almost every aspect of modern life, from personal assistants on our smartphones to recommendation algorithms on streaming platforms, shaping the way we work, communicate, and navigate the world. Its pervasive presence underscores the urgency for us to critically examine and understand its implications on society, ethics, and the very fabric of human existence.

Despite its ubiquity, many of us have yet to be formally acquainted with this technological wunderkind. A&I, presented by Orange Grove Dance at The Voxel in Baltimore last month, offered an attempt at breaking the ice and introducing us to our future, one in which humans work with artificial intelligence to one day attain genuine wisdom. 

 

A&I completed its three-show run at The Voxel in Baltimore from April 19th–21st. The show will travel to Virginia in June for a performance at Sweet Briar College whose Dance Program was a partner in its development.

 

Header Image by Kiirstn Pagan

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