AI and a renowned dancer performed together — Can AI stimulate the dancer’s creativity?

Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium

Since the end of 2017, I have been involved in a project with one prominent flamenco dancer. Why flamenco? It’s an attempt to see how AI can be used to extend flamenco as a form of dance. This project is led by YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media), Japan’s leading museum and research institute for media art. (Please note that this article is a review of the project from the author’s personal point of view. I do not represent YCAM.)

Flamenco dancer Israel Galván has been called a revolutionary in the world of flamenco. He is a choreographer, a dancer with style with minimalism and physicality that is very different from the traditional flamenco. (I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a stereotype of flamenco where a beautiful woman dances with a rose in her hand while clicking castanets…) You may find more similarity between his flamenco and modern dance or modern ballet than with conventional flamenco. You can see it well from the interspersed use of the word “controversial” in the Wikipedia article on him.

Solo by Israel Galván

At first, I had no clue, “Why, flamenco? Why would I do that?” But when I met him for the first time, he told me that “flamenco is music,” and that changed my perspective. I had a strong impression of the elegant upper body movements in flamenco. According to Israel, the key to flamenco is the Zapateado (foot rhythm like tap dance). If the Zapateado and Palma (handclaps) are the rhythms, then the hand movements are the “visual melody.” It is flamenco that conveys emotions as multi-sensorial music that integrates the rhythm of Zapateade and Palma, the visual melody of the body movement, guitars, and songs. Once I realized it, my direction became more explicit: I could think of this project as a music generation project with AI.

Israel Galvan (Wikipedia)

He is also known for rarely dancing with other flamenco dancers. According to him, the reason for this is that when you dance with other dancers, you “tend to stay in the existing conventions.” Instead, he dances with a giant rocking chair as a fighting bull (above) or with an unstable chair with one leg cut off. In one of his pieces, “La Casa(2006)”, he incorporated the movement of the shelves in the house into his dance (video below). In order to break down the stereotype of gender, he even disguises himself as a woman.

“La casa”, Israel Galván (2006)

While these objects physically respond to his movement in some way, of course, these objects don’t have any notion of flamenco rhythm patterns. Nor is it just exact echos of Israel’s rhythms. These physical objects react to Israel’s movement in somewhat predictable ways with some randomness and contingency.

What is important is the delicate balance between predictability and unpredictability, and the ambiguity that leaves open room for Israel to reinterpret.

It was in 2017 that YCAM began to approach him. YCAM didn’t have the idea of using AI from the beginning, but in the course of discussions, the use of AI was proposed in response to Israel’s desire to “dance with his alter ego” and “have a buddy like Sancho Panza for Don Quijote.”

AI DJ Project / YCAM (2017) Photo by Yasuhiro Tani / Courtesy of Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media [YCAM]

Around that time, I was working on my AI DJ project at YCAM. It was very natural for me to join this dance project. Needless to say, there was a lot of overlap with AI DJ project, which started out with the idea of “playing DJ alongside with my alter ego DJ.”