Pontus Lidberg: AI’s Influence on the Future of Dance

By Victoria Lubas | November 12, 2019

From Dance and Film to Artificial Intelligence

New York City- and Copenhagen-based choreographer, filmmaker, and dancer, Pontus Lidberg, joined the Center for Ballet and the Arts (CBA) at NYU as a resident fellow during the spring 2019 semester. Lidberg has choreographed for several dance companies around the world, including the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and The Martha Graham Dance Company. He also works as artistic director of the Danish Dance Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2012, Lidberg’s film Labyrinth Within won Best Picture at Lincoln Center’s Dance for Camera Festival. Lidberg said, “The choreographic work that appears in the film called Siren received a Villanueva Award for one of the best performances presented in Cuba in 2018.” He is also the recipient of a 2019 John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.

Born in Stockholm, Lidberg trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and holds an MFA in Contemporary Performing Arts from the University of Gothenburg. Lidberg’s extensive choreographic and artistic experience has helped his work with NYU CBA, which centers around researching potential applications for artificial intelligence (AI) in dance.

Researching Artificial Intelligence and Dance at CBA

What results did you find through your research? How will that play into your future projects?

Pontus Lidberg: I found most applications of AI in choreography has to do with creating movement, improvisation or choreographic patterns. Not so much the implications of interacting with AI in the first place, which became my primary interest. Many artists use AI. Together with Google Arts & Culture, British choreographer Wayne McGregor developed an AI capable of predicting dance moves in his particular style. My interest is not in AI creating movement, instead, the focus of the work has been what happens when humans beings (dancers, the audience) interact with AI and how that interaction changes us and our perception of AI.

What problems and realities does AI’s involvement in the arts pose?

PL: AI is the application of Machine Learning, and a better word for it could be Automated Decision Systems. Sophisticated AI is being developed by money, whereas people affected by AI (often) have very little money or possibility to influence what AI is being developed. AI/Algorithms are built by a narrow segment of society, are fed data and learn from this data. A limited breadth of information is fed into the algorithms (often the algorithms still depend on people to tag the data). This can perpetuate cultural biases. I believe the arts could help illuminate these tendencies.

Do you see AI gaining a bigger role in ballet, choreography, and other performing arts in the future?

PL: Sure it could, just as it would in society at large. But marketing favours and oversells how AI is going to empower you, the consumer, whereas the money that develops AI often has other interests (for example to collect and analyse your data). The interface of technology developed makes us forget we are interacting with a company (or a government), not with a friend. So it depends on who created the AI and for what purpose.

Pontus Lidberg

Pontus Lidberg. Photo by Charlie Makkos, courtesy of the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts.

How has your dance and choreography experience affected or inspired your research into AI?

PL: I had many questions. Can the dancers provide a body to an AI? Can the AI give instruction and provide a discursive landscape to the dance? Are emotions bound to the body or can they be discursively conditioned? Are memories key in developing intelligence? What is the relation between the mind, body, memories, and emotion? Can you escape your own body? Can you gain a position in the world without a body?

Did your decision to work with AI stem from a long-term interest in combining analog/human with electronic/artificial?

PL: Much of my interest lies in the grey area between fiction and reality. My personal point of view is that there is no such thing as an objective reality (at least not one that is attainable to us). Instead, we live in our subjective interpretations and perceptions “about” reality. What we perceive ― sensory input as filtered through our mind ― and how we interpret those perceptions become the reality we inhabit and thus fiction becomes real. As humans, we are subject to genes and conditioning, whereas an AI is subject to its programming and data sets. I find this parallel fascinating!

How does working with AI compare to your traditional method of responding to human dancers’ opinions and styles? As you worked, was AI anywhere near as responsive as humans?

PL: Well, we are still programming. Yet to be determined!

Next Steps

Aside from his work with NYU CBA, Lidberg spent the summer in Paris working on his newest film, currently titled Written on Water — an 80-minute drama about a choreographer who must face an unresolved encounter from her past as she creates a new dance work. The result of Lidberg’s work with the Center for Ballet and the Arts is set to premiere on May 2, 2020.

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