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Building Drones to Dance – David Parsons’ Choreography Brings Human and Robot Inspired Dynamics to Philadelphia

August 25, 2016

Parsons Dance company members rehearse in Drexel's Mandell Theater. 

The Federal Aviation Administration has counted nearly 325,000 registered drone operators as of Feb. 8, 2016 – although this number represents only a fraction of the unmanned aerial vehicles currently at the fingertips of humans. According to the FAA, the average drone operator owns one and a half drones, putting the number of flying robots closer to half a million…but how many of these drones will dance? 

At Drexel, students are working to finesse a custom, light-weight and graceful drone –  to mirror the artistic behaviors of the performing artist.

Undoubtedly influenced by the increase of unpiloted aircraft in the sky, a shared vision was born between artistic director, David Parsons of Parsons Dance, Drexel University’s Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies Center (ExCITe) and its dance program in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Together their collaboration will bring a new and untraditional performance to the Prince Theater on Dec. 7, 2016.

Renowned choreographer David Parsons came to ExCITe after hearing of its past experience and success working with cutting edge technology and performing arts projects. ExCITe serves to integrate Drexel's leadership in technology, design and entrepreneurship for a profound impact beyond the University. Drexel’s reputation for multidisciplinary collaboration complimented Parson’s vision to effectively merge the worlds of art and technology. The concept for his drone-inspired dance will take shape here at Drexel over the next few months. 

“There is no existing system that makes it easy to use drones within a theater,” said Youngmoo Kim, PhD, director of Drexel’s ExCITe Center and an associate professor in the College of Engineering. “We needed to develop custom drones and software to achieve the type of expressive movement and flexibility envisioned by David Parsons. This required integrating expertise from many disciplines, from engineering and computing to technical theater, and these efforts highlight the transdisciplinary and entrepreneurial mission of our university.”

Using a commercial firm to create a custom system would have been prohibitively expensive for such a project. Working closely with Parsons, Kim’s team of Drexel students, led by mechanical engineering student Adam Cho – were able to develop a relatively low-cost and easy-to-configure system that utilizes an infrared field and custom software for optimal control and precision flying of multiple drones simultaneously. 

The drones were constructed using inexpensive 3D printed components and cutting edge materials, such as carbon fiber-infused plastic, making replacement parts easy and inexpensive to fabricate. The exploration, coding and overall execution was spearheaded by the ExCITe Center with extensive testing in Drexel’s Mandell Theater.

“As an artist, I need to take risks to continually reinvent myself and to stay fresh and relevant. We are sometimes uncomfortable dealing with new mediums like science and technology, and there are big risks involved,” said David Parsons, artistic director of Parsons Dance. “I am inspired by Youngmoo, his team and his vision. Our world is changing at an incredibly fast pace; I am interested in the impact of that change on all of us.  I’m very thankful to be working with the ExCITe Center and Westphal College to realize this long-held vision to combine new technology and dance.”

Dance students in the Performing Arts Program stood in place of Parsons Dance company members to assist with mapping, staging and movement while the company was on recess. This opportunity allowed them to interact and learn from a celebrated artist and dancer about conceptualization and the evolution of the creative process on a professional level.

Building off the successes of Parsons’ celebrated stroboscopic solo, Caught – the creation and debut of Parson’s newest technology-infused work will highlight the evolution of technology and the changing relationship of human and machine.

“Parsons’ Caught introduced the powerfulness of a single dancer, seemingly in flight with over 100 leaps perfectly timed to pulsating strobe light technology and now the anticipation of multiple dancers and multiple drones leaves me excited for the debut and grateful our students were able to participate in the beginning stages of David’s work,” said Miriam Giguere, department head for Performing Arts in Westphal College, and dance faculty member. “We believe it’s essential for students to have exposure to the professional challenges they may find in their field.”

For Giguere and Kim, collaboration across their departments is not unchartered territory. A 2015 seed project within ExCITe joins investigators from Drexel’s program in Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences, the Department of Performing Arts and the Digital Media Program. The goal is to explore the human performance, perception and memory of expressive and skilled movement in the domains of martial arts and pilates, this will effectively combine cognitive science research, motion capture and eye tracking technology. 

Lead commissioners of the new dance by David Parsons include: Randy Swartz, artistic director of NextMove Dance; Gerald Appelstein; and Stephen Meringoff. Co-commissioners include Drexel University’s Westphal College’s Department of Performing Arts, the ExCITe Center, and Barbara and Mark Pankhurst. The debut of the new dance will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 7, as a part of the 2016-17 season at the Prince Theater. 

 “The opportunity of working with Drexel’s ExCITe Center and Parsons Dance intersecting technology and the arts will be a highlight of our season when the company premieres the new work in December at the Prince Theater,” said Mr. Swartz. 

Although the work itself is in its beginning stages, concepts such as mutualism, power dynamics and political controversy may find a place in the piece. Parsons plans to explore both the negatives and the positives of drone technology in the modern age, as well as the evolving role of the human being and the robot.


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