Sunday, March 28, 2021

Choreography for Dancing Robots

 Meet the Choreographer Behind Those Dancing Robots

"With just a few days left in 2020, renowned robotics company Boston Dynamics released a music video that featured a variety of two-legged, four-legged and wheeled robots dancing to The Contours' "Do You Love Me." The piece swiftly went viral, and has since been viewed nearly 30 million times. The choreography is, in short, bonkers, and uncannily illustrates the dexterity, balance and coordination of Boston Dynamics' designs.

As is typical of corporate marketing, however, no individual makers were credited, leaving folks in the dance community to wonder, who choreographed that? I dug through discussions of the project on Reddit and Twitter, learned the choreographer is Monica Thomas, and reached out to her immediately to learn more.

Can you tell us a bit about your personal dance history?

Yes! I was trained in the Cecchetti method, and I remained committed to ballet through high school although I took modern, jazz and tap classes along the way. In college, I began choreographing on my own and with others. In my senior year two friends—Theresa Madaus and Tara King—and I decided to make a "joke" dance. This collaboration turned out to be really significant: After college, we formed Mad King Thomas, and have made dances, installations and films together for over 10 years.

Before you started working with Boston Dynamics, were you familiar with their work?

I have a strong memory of seeing BigDog being pushed over and refind its balance, and slipping on ice but staying upright. It has stuck with me for years. I became familiar with Boston Dynamics when I moved back East, and was involved in the Uptown Spot project.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process with the robots and the technical team? How did you go from ideas to action?

Marc Raibert, the founder of Boston Dynamics, who directed the video, sent a generous initial brief that gave me a lot of autonomy to come up with ideas. Early in the process I consulted with my long-term collaborators to flesh out conceptual and musical ideas. I would then bring these back to Marc. We ended up choosing "Do You Love Me?," which we both found appealing.

I spent time watching the robots move to get a sense of joint flexibility, etc. I then made a dance on my body to act out each part. I hired dancers to learn this choreography, which allowed it to be put together in one sequence for filming. I gave a video of the whole dance to Boston Dynamics, as well as each robot's part (except Handle—I tried to choreograph Handle using a hoverboard and mostly made myself nauseous)..."

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