Dances with robots, part 2

December 17, 2010 · 7 comments

in Pilobolus News

This blog post is part two of an earlier post.

At the beginning of December, we previewed a piece entitled “Seraph” – a collaboration with MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and its Distributed Robotics Lab (DRL).   A blend of technology and dance, the Boston Globe commented on the piece, saying “it explores how machines are us — in their relationships to one another and the people who make them.”

DRL's Wil Selby and Daniel Soltero, pilots of the two robots in "Seraph," sporting Pilobolus/MIT Robotics t-shirts before the show

Pilobolus and the Distributed Robotics Lab, led by Daniela Rus and including current and former MIT PhD students William Selby, Brian Julian, Daniel Soltero, Andrew Marchese, and Carrick Detweiler, collaborated on the piece from the beginning.  In “Seraph,” Pilobolus’ Molly Gawler explores and dances with two dinner plate-sized robots, which were designed and built  by former students and collaborators in the DRL.  To increase the visibility of the robots on stage and to give the robots personality, the robots were “dressed” with programmable LED lights, the design and implementation of which were accomplished by Carrick Detweiler, now an assistant professor at University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in conjunction with a Ph.D. student from the DRL, Brian John Julian.

In the creation and rehearsal process, Rus noticed Molly’s changing relationship with the robots.   “From interest to interaction to affection,” Rus said.  “At some point Molly started calling the robots ‘Wil’ and ‘Danny’  and used expressions such as ‘Come here Wil,’ and ‘Go there Danny,’ so the robots effectively became avatars.”

During the Boston performance, DRL students Wil Selby and Daniel Soltero piloted the robots from the stage via remote control.  “Performing onstage with Pilobolus was an unforgettable experience,” Soltero said.  “It was really incredible for me to be part of such a performance, where I learned so much and had so much fun.”

Selby added, “We got to teach them about the robots (and will teach Jun how to fly in the future) and they taught us some handstands and other things as well before the shows.  It was awesome being able to watch the show from backstage.  It definitely gave us a new appreciation for their skill and athleticism.”

“Seraph” will premiere at the Joyce Theater in NYC as a part of our summer season in 2011.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

André December 21, 2010 at 2:59 pm

When I read this blog I was thinking of big robots as in cartoons.

I wish all the people of Pilobolus Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!! Happy Holidays!!!
From André Wouters, the Netherlands.


Sarah McSherry April 1, 2011 at 4:22 am


Oh my gosh.

So here I am, reading Alan Turings “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” for my artificial intelligence class tomorrow. And he is discussing Lady Lovelace’s objection that a machine cannot ever generate anything new or original. And through some sort of serendipitous intellectual leap, I thought, “what if a machine could be taught to improvise?” And then I realized that has already happened:
It’s a jazzbot; it can improvise in real time with a human musical collaborator. And then, because in my life it all comes back to dance, I have to ask: could this be done with a dancing machine? Granted, music is more conspicuously mathematical than human movement… but the foundation is there. And I’m interested.

In short… tell the MIT kids that a dance & computer science student at Sarah Lawrence College wants to collaborate with them to develop a program that will allow these robots to improvise with a dancer!


Pilobolus April 1, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Cool! I’ll send Wil and Daniel your way!

On a side note: I just downloaded the ZOOZbeat iPhone app mentioned on the NPR article – get it if you can. It’s a lot of fun!


Sarah McSherry April 2, 2011 at 11:46 pm

It is so fun! The accompanist who does all of my practice classes in school has it, every now and then for a contemporary class he plugs it into an amp and uses that app instead of his instruments–sometimes when we’re doing phrases in groups, he passes it around to the group who’s sitting out and lets us be the accompanists for our classmates, so much fun.


Pilobolus April 4, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Technology is amazing! :)


Wil and Danny April 21, 2011 at 6:17 pm