During the first 2 days of the program the focus was on developing the team and finding out about the project brief. The recording of the performance was played, the music explored and questions answered.
This was then followed by an introduction to the tech available and how to program it. Participants learnt about computational thinking and the core fundamentals of programming. Then, having developed some understanding of the tech, collaborated with the dancers to brainstorm ideas of how the tech could be used within the performance. These groups also considered how they could manipulate sounds to create the live-coded soundscape that would be programmed and delivered through Sonic Pi.
As choreographer (and Artistic Director) Rebecca poured over the assemblage of ideas, gathered during brainstorming, and weaved these into the choreography in a way that would give meaning. This then provided the detailed brief for the audible and physical elements of the performance, which the Digital Futures participants then work to deliver.
The result was incredibly effective.
The performance was broken down into 3 distinct sections that told the story of the women who rebuilt the bridge of Waterloo through a high-spirited, pre-war section, a functional, hardworking and industrious wartime section and a post-war section, which saw mixed emotions as news of loved ones came home, alongside the paradoxes of the country beginning to rebuild, while the women lost their new-found talents and independence.
Each of these 3 sections transitioned from one to the next through a mix of radio announcements and sirens, all sound programmed and controlled using Sonic Pi.
The first transition marking the beginning of the war, whilst the second transition marked the end.
In addition to these transitions, each section had its own distinct soundtrack, and its own distinct onstage lighting with which the dancers or coders interacted with and triggered. Accompanying the audible sirens, participants were challenged to program the lights to visually represent the sirens and the dangers of the time. The solution was spinning red lights attached to motors which span part-way then back again constantly as long as a button was pressed, controlled by coders who would be present on the stage.
Audio for the first section was comprised of the various sounds of everyday life, these gradually built, through the layering of tracks included additional sound files aimed at developing the atmosphere before a section of Swing arrived, to represent the carefree sense that preceded the war. The lights for this section were used to introduce the audience to the control which the dancers would have over lights throughout the performance. The lights consisted of LED strips formed into balls, which were then mounted on tall stands. Also mounted on the stands were distance sensors which would enable the dancers to control the light output through their movement; dependant on their position the dancers could affect the shade and luminosity of the lights. These lights were used in each of the other 3 sections, with different distance ranges. To allow these changes in state, a button was mounted, on the stand, which was programmed to initiate a different output when pressed.
The music of the second section, wartime, was heavily live coded, a real accomplishment by a very talented participant who really rose to the challenge of live coding. Live coding allows for the coder to continuously deliver audio, whilst manipulating it by adding and removing sounds or applying effects to distort them. This section developed beginning with the bells of Big Ben chiming whilst the women awoke to the realisation of this new tragic era, the dancers moved from the safety and brightness of the balls of lights, into the sounds of industry represented by audio samples of anvils, hammers and machines. Each of the sounds that were used in this portion of the section (and in the next portion also), were assigned to a specific dancer. In total there were 6 different industry related sound, 2 for each of the 3 dancers and for each of these sounds the dancer had a different choreographed response. The coder was in control, the dancer had to respond every time they heard either of their sounds and had other responses, if their sound hadn’t played for a period of time. Effectively the coders were not just live-coding the music, but also the dancers! At a time decided by the coder, this portion of industry was immediately followed by women’s voices recounting their experiences of wartime and how they felt. Again, dancers had specific audio files associated to them, which resulted in a specific response and the coder was in complete control. The coder took the live-coding a stage further this time, incorporating functions to simplify, as these voice recordings were played back in pieces, repeated and looped played in part or in full. A function is a procedure within a program which can be run by simply calling it’s name. So, section of a program which might require 15 lines, could be run with just 1 line, whenever needed. This is one way to create efficient programs. The speed at which these functions needed to be run made this a very complex part of the performance for the coder; in particular it was a challenge to avoid becoming entirely immersed in the code and losing place in the performance. Again, the coder had complete control about the transition into the next part of this section and which sound would play next… the dancers could only await their instructions.
The final portion of the wartime section, building the bridge of light. This was the crescendo, of the second section, during which the dancers worked to complete circuits by pressing large foil touchpads, some of which were meters apart on the stage. This was such a simple but effective input, using the bodies of all 3 dancers to complete each circuit. Upon completion, a strip of 30 individually addressable LED lights would illuminate. Because each of these LEDs were individually addressable, each could be lit at a different time in a different colour. For effect, all light outputs were kept to a white or off-white colour, but the sequence in which they would light differed hugely. There were 6 sets of these 30 LEDs, made up in pairs of 15 LEDs. When all 6 sets had completely illuminated, they would stay on, their illuminated position represented the completed bridge of Waterloo. The transition was then made into the final section.
The war was over, sirens screamed, lights flashed and radio announcements broke the tension of the previous scene. During the final section, we heard cheering and birds singing, harmony began to return, and music once again played, but this time, an eerie version of Don’t Fence Me In demonstrates the slower pace alongside a feeling of helplessness as these courageous, strong and effective women downed tools and abandoned their newfound talents. Some men returned, some didn’t; some relationships rekindled, whilst for others each half of the partnership had changed too much from their experiences to be able to recover what they had once had. The dancers wore lights and tilt sensors during this section. A tilt sensor was place on the wrist of each dancer, when the arm was lifted the light would illuminate, when down the light would be off. The dancers used exaggerated movements to clarify this control for the audience. Throughout the audio Don’t Fence Me In was broken into sections, each of which was played at a slightly different pace, marking the uncertainty of what lay ahead, slowing down to represent the more sedentary pace of life. The section ended with peaceful swaying amongst the static lights of the LED balls once again amongst the simple background sounds of everyday life.
The performance and project were both a great success, in addition to the programming skills which the participants developed, they advanced a wide range of soft skills, including communication, time management, team work, leadership and due to the project management responsibilities assigned participants also developed skills such as design, marketing, social media promotion and contingency planning.
In September 2016, at the WOW Talks, Women in Technology event, I had the pleasure of meeting Rebecca Evans, an exciting individual passionate about her art. Rebecca, is the founder of dance company Pell Ensemble, and through this dance company Rebecca is able to explore and develop her deep interest in the collaboration between dance, technology and coding. With my own small amount of history in dance and music and my obvious interest in creative computing, we quickly struck a chord and enthusiasm was flowing through our conversation.
I discovered that since 2014, Rebecca has had the wonderful experience of working with leading digital artists in the form of coders, developers, projection mappers, app artists and 360 story tellers. She has worked with these artists to create a walking performance app, interactive handheld lights and in her most ambitious project 'David', an app led performance that responds to the audience’s choices, changing the destiny and outcome of the show.
Following several subsequent meetings, in November 2016, I received an interesting invitation from Rebecca… to support The Bridge at Waterloo and Pell Ensemble in delivering their Digital Futures programme for 2017.
Digital Futures is essentially a digital employability program with a tangible, performance outcome. Following interviews, 16 adults would be invited to join the program, to learn about programming and to go on to implement what they had learnt by digitally enhancing a dance performance.
I loved the idea of the program, that it would also develop the soft skills of the individuals alongside the hard skills and so we began planning. The first port of call was to decide what the digital involvement would be.
Anyone who knows me understands that physical computing is something which I find hugely creative and that I feel creativity itself is extremely valuable. I’m often heard sharing my concerns over the depleting opportunities for creativity for children and the possible effects of this on the inventiveness of our future minds. It will come as no surprise that Rebecca and I decided to create digital interactions to help the dancers in their performance, with a strong focus on individual creativity.
So, Rebecca and I embarked upon a somewhat unknown journey. We had ideas about what the end result could be, but the actual result was somewhat unknown. We would teach the skills, support the Digital Futures participants in exploring the tech and see where their creativity lead the piece. In addition to creating physical interactions, we also decided to recreate the music through a coded music platform, Sonic Pi.
To achieve the music element, we would need to enlist a talented composer who could create a piece of music in layers for the participants (coders) to build up in their own creative way. In comes the next key creative member, Angus MacRae.
Of course, there would need to be certain rules to be met for the sake of the dancers, but nothing that would hamper their opportunity for creativity; there’s that magic word again!
With the decision made, I began planning in earnest, considering the various possible end results, along with which controllers would work well as the brains of the interactions. Then onto thinking through which inputs and outputs might be particularly interesting or demonstrative in the realms of dance. Finally, planning of the progression path to ensure that individuals who have never coded before would have the tools they needed to be able to achieve these goals.
We also had the interesting challenge of needing a group of people, previously unknown to one another to learn together, work together, project managed together and ultimately reach the outcome of a successful performance in a field which they might have no knowledge of, music and dance. Whilst dance was not likely to be too much of a problem, music could pose more of an issue, once the coders began to explore and manipulate the sounds. This element would need to be taught also.
Key elements that were included in the discrete teaching would be teambuilding, an introduction to project management, an introduction to music, computational thinking and the core fundamentals of programming. We could then build on these to develop skills of the individuals as needed.
There were also many soft skills that would be taught as part of the Digital Futures program. These would mostly be taught by external companies and individuals. Citizens UK would visit to run a negotiation skills workshop, we would see Debate Mate visit and also have talks on time management, LinkedIn and conflict resolution.
Alongside these talks, I was also able to arrange an exciting visit to Facebook HQ at Brock Street. During this visit the participants would get an introduction to Facebook and a tour of the office. This would then be followed by a talk about CV creation (including some extremely valuable insider information), a talk on impactful interview techniques, neatly rounded off by a CV surgery.
With all this variety and the planned enrichment, it became clear that there was a great opportunity here to explore if we could include a qualification. Given the importance of creativity to both Rebecca and myself, and conversations that we had around the topic, it was decided that the 2017 program would also offer an Arts Award Silver. Arts Award Silver is an the Regulated Qualification Framework that would see any participants who choose to take up the challenge assessed at a standard comparable with a GCSE grade A* - C. Arts Award Silver is a qualification recognised by Further & Higher Education and employers; it holds a credit value of 10. All well worth the effort, and with support provided by the lovely Julie Neville we could ensure a good result for participants who wanted to take up this opportunity.. As I am an Arts Award Advisor for Bronze, Silver and Gold, The Bridge at Waterloo were able to register as an Arts Award Centre and offer this accreditation as part of the Digital Futures programme.
The overall plan for Digital Futures was that it would take place annually in July for a total of 5 years. Each of the projects from 2017 onwards would be linked to the heritage of Waterloo and the 2017 link was to tell the story of the women who are said to have rebuilt Waterloo Bridge, during the Second World War.
To support the participants in having a focus and vision for the end goal, the performance piece would be created and performed at St John’s Festival in June. The musical composition and choreography would be in place for this performance and would provide a starting point from which the Digital Futures project could develop. The performance would be filmed so that the participants could view the performance. This is especially valuable in helping any individuals who may not know what contemporary dance is, or those who may struggle, to envision how a story could be told through dance.
Coders will use this performance as a basis for their digital enhancements.
Let the creativity begin!