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SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles .

Today we learn the other side of the story from trained Baharatanatyam dancer and cognitive scientist Pranjali Kulkarni  — can science influence the arts? Pranjali, a research scholar at the Centre for Cognitive Science, Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, uses technology to take her performing art lessons to another level – that of intelligent learning.

Pranjali Kulkarni

“Dance is like wine; it matures with every performance,” Alarmel Valli, the famous Indian classical dancer, once said. Even with great tutors, artists could take a lot of time and practice to become experts.

I have been learning the Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam for 15 years now. I also taught it for almost 2 years, during which I realised that learning never ends.

Despite my best efforts to teach young students, my instructions were unable to convey to them what I had experienced while learning those very dance movements. Something was missing from my teaching. Why wasn’t I able to evoke the same experience in the learners?

This question was the basis of my quest to unravel the missing link.

As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, I started looking at this challenge from a cognitive science perspective. Studying dance literature and experiential processing while dancing, I quickly learnt that dancers develop expertise through subconscious processes. These processes make performances by experts both mesmerising and very personal, something that can’t be easily transferred to another person – they can neither be shown nor taught.

But these subconscious processes can certainly be recorded through specific devices.

I wanted to unearth these subconscious techniques that an expert dancer puts to use in achieving finesse in dance movements. Technology came to my aid in integrating these two things — learning Bharatanatyam and tracking subconscious processes from bodily movements. I tried deconstructing these expert techniques in Bharatanatyam based on five bodily parameters – posture, balance, speed control, accuracy and synchronisation.

Technology helped me understand Bharatanatyam better

Bharatnatyam, like most other classical dance forms, is deeply rooted in religion, devotion and social practises. Intricate details of skilled Bharatanatyam movements have traditionally been passed on through family lineages. These hereditary traditions are preserved in ancient scripts, and in recent times, in audio-visual recordings.

A teacher, a video or a script could provide enough details to learn the basics of a dance form. But the subconscious skilled moves of expert dancers – the peculiar angles, postures, movement progressions or balance – don’t get conveyed in these forms of learning.

I used high precision cameras and algorithms to decode these micro movements through a technology called the motion capture system (Mocap). These unseen and unrecorded skilled moves have been defined as ‘dance primitives’, equivalent to notations in music, and considered the fundamental building blocks of a particular step. For instance, a fine movement such as a waist tremble can be recorded through a movement coordinate system on Mocap.

[Watch Pranjali use Mocap while teaching Bharatanatyam to students: https://youtu.be/ZUDB10b12DA]

To test my idea, I conducted Bharatanatyam workshops for students at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Ishikawa, Japan over two months. I taught them a few basic Bharatanatyam steps – Tatta Adavu and Natta Adavu – involving coordinated posture, hand and leg movements, in increasing order of difficulty.

I then used a virtual reality set up in Mocap that can read subtle movements and give feedback. I recorded both expert and novice dancers and used the virtual reality model of the expert dancer to give feedback to the novice dancers. The precision was unimaginable – I don’t think the feedback can be matched even by an expert human teacher. To my surprise I found that the novices quickly picked up some movements that I had taken many years to master.

To cite another example, the virtual reality model showed how experienced dancers use techniques of transition in steps at fast speeds. The balance between posture and movement maintained at peculiar angles is traditionally achieved through meticulous practice. But Mocap captured those angles at all speeds and helped learners correct their steps using real time feedback.

What’s more, novice dancers formulated some techniques on their own to learn better and faster. For example, they were using the torque of ankles to balance their body at fast speeds, a technique I had not taught them. Learners were innovating subconsciously and these innovations could be traced through Mocap. Such data can be very useful for self-reflection – to understanding a learner’s positives and negatives.

These two new insights from the Mocap data open doors for detailed research in various movement-based art forms.

I was extremely fascinated that something like Mocap could become a reflective learning tool. During my initial days as a Bharatanatyam student, I split dance videos into small clips to learn from them. But a technology like Mocap is a leap ahead in not just recording dance but also as a powerful teaching tool.

Experts and traditional tutors are not available everywhere. Technological experiments with art can now deconstruct expert techniques and help anyone master his or her passion for the performing arts.

According to Indian art philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The art remains in the artist and is the knowledge by which things are made.” I do agree that technology can never compete with the qualia of knowledge passed down through art traditions, learning and practice. But research such as Mocap can certainly aid learning and strengthen the appreciation and preservation of the art forms.

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

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