The New Frontier

by Luca Tieppo

MMD’s Artistic Director reflects on present and future opportunities for ballet classes during the global lock-down.

Dance’s discovery of the virtual world looks very much like the discovery of a new world. There is a before and after, and I imagine the before is similar to Columbus’ experience of going from kingdom to kingdom with the odd idea of reaching the Indies by travelling in the opposite direction.

Likewise, before the pandemic, MMD’s idea must have sounded just as odd to many in our profession, but what has always motivated us remains important: to take educational, musical and artistic excellence everywhere, all whilst saving time, energies and resources. Same as Columbus, after all…

The initial core of the project originates from the observation that very often it’s only during workshops and summer schools that young dance students find out for the first time that there’s real people behind CD music: musicians for dance. Then you see how the first encounter with live music makes them lost, temporarily “musically deaf” even.

However, it would be both financially and physically utopic to think that the problem can be solved by ensuring that every school employs a musician. You might not be aware of this, but in Italy alone there are more than 17,000 registered dance schools.

In addition, it must be considered that job security for dance musicians can only be guaranteed in big cities, because this is where the big dance academies and organisations are located. In short, the physical presence of professional musicians everywhere is an unfeasible strategy.

At MMD we saw an opportunity in virtuality as a way forward to create technical support to access live music – even if only occasionally – for those who request it.

Currently there is one structural impediment in the web: latency.

Latency, or ping, is the time it takes for a request to travel from the sender to the receiver and for the receiver to process that request. In other words, with the current standards available to the average user, it’s impossible to play “together” with other musicians or in sync with a dancer. There is always going to be some kind of delay, big or small, however strong the internet connection.

You can easily find this out with a simple experiment: clap your hands at a medium speed tempo and you’ll see that the person on the other side of the screen will always be one clap behind, because the sound in its round trip will “steal” time; sometimes this is not perceivable during a normal conversation but will be evident if you attempt to play music.

Some musicians have tried to tackle this kind of constant “upbeat”, in musical terms, by creating a system that considerably reduces latency.

A project of the Conservatoire and University of Trieste, Italy, called LoLa (Low Latency AV streaming system) uses advanced connection services in the GARR network to connect several universities and conservatoires around the world. Despite being a fantastic system, it has some limitations. It is available only in certain locations and is very expensive, therefore it doesn’t allow that widespread dissemination of the system which is at the basis of MMD’s project.

The only way to solve the problem of latency once and for all is to opt for the new 5G standards, which will allow remote interaction almost as if distance didn’t exist. MMD being a collective of musicians and dancers, our project has been thought through in order to involve all of the professional figures operating in our sector: musician, teacher, dancer and choreographer.

Since early 2019, we have received great interest for our project from international companies and foundations. We have had several meetings with potential technological partners who have seen in the interaction between dance and innovative technologies the perfect opportunity to test futuristic scenarios: augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, holograms, and even avatars.

Dance is probably the highest expression of the human being since it combines and elevates the physical and spiritual dimensions, and as such it carries an important message: technology is not there to replace humankind, but it is at its service, as we have started to see during these tragic times. So much so that a “Technological Humanism” has been hypothesized.

At present, a prestigious Foundation based in Italy is available to support us in the application to a European fund, and we have secured the collaboration of north European universities, including research centres specialised in the application of new technologies to the performing arts. We have involved internationally-renowned artistic institutions, whose reputation can help present this new approach and which have been able to overcome their doubts and uncertainties and give us their support. Last September we introduced the project as part of the Learning and Teaching Conference at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, to show how this technology can offer a new dimension to education and didactics. We have planned a preliminary testing phase using holographic techniques and avatars to allow our fellow dancers, in the not-too-distant future, to go beyond video. We have also established relationships with the most important mobile operators and 5G infrastructure manufacturers to discuss the specific technical requirements of the dance sector. We also believe that health and safety is a priority for everyone, as is particularly evident during the current emergency.

And then the virus came… the European bid for April has been called off and we are still trying to understand what is going to happen to the November one. Everything is still or suspended. All of a sudden, the doubts of the dance world have turned into certainties; the odd idea of a few has become the daily reality of many, if not all.

But while teachers and dancers, after the initial bewilderment, have discovered a new world and many have started to appreciate the new opportunities that remote interaction allows, the world of dance musicians – for whom our 5G project had been originally intended – have been left out. Some timidly post something online, but interaction is not easy. And in a six-month-lockdown situation, this can become a great complication.

Having considered that it’s not worth complaining and that we still have to wait before 5G is widely implemented, we tried to experiment with whether the basic foundations of the original project could be replicated in the current conditions, albeit with some level of adaptation.

We realised that fundamentally there are two impediments, though these could be bypassed.

As mentioned earlier, by current standards, latency cannot be eliminated; it’s part of 4G systems and there are no definitive solutions to the problem. However, it can be reduced with a few easy precautions. For example, by playing in tempo without trying to follow the dancers on screen. This is similar to playing the organ in a cathedral, where the console is on the altar, but the pipes are above the gate: after a while, you get used to it.

Another suggestion is to pin the video of the teacher (which is possible on every platform currently in use, i.e. Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, etc.) to limit the number of pictures moving at different times. For once the lack of sync is not the dancers’ fault but that of the connection! 😉

The second issue is common to all the platforms we have been using. Zoom and similar have not been conceived for us artists, but to facilitate online meetings, calls, conferences, etc; in other words, to allow remote interactions between speaking individuals. The way they work reflects this – cameras are set for close-ups and the system always prioritises the active speaker.

And this is exactly what we want to work on. It is possible to tweak video preferences (grid view, active speaker, pin function, etc.) regardless of who is talking (or playing); it is also possible to mute and unmute users to avoid background noise. So, for example, the musician and the dancers could pin the video from the teacher while the teacher could watch the “class” in grid view or pin one student at a time to correct them.

It is not possible to do the same with sound. Which means that if the teacher starts marking or talking over the musician playing, the system will perceive the teacher as the active speaker and lower the volume of the music.

This makes a lesson using live music very problematic at present. The only solution would be for the teacher to remain silent during the execution of the exercise while the music is playing.

As you are probably already aware, it is possible to communicate with developers to provide feedback. What we at MMD are trying to do is to lobby the different platforms so that the developers resolve the issue. In order for the necessities of our sector to be heard and dealt with and to build technological support for our work, we would like for others to highlight the problem as well; there is power in numbers.

We have already done our part but at this time of emergency, all of the aforementioned platforms are trying their best to react to users’ feedback – so why not join the campaign?

You could also send your feedback to the app or platform you use the most, outlining our requirements and asking for a very simple tweak: that “sound priority” can be managed manually, allowing users to pin audio and not just video. This would allow for two pinned users at the same time: the musician and the teacher.

This is what we have come up with so far and that we believe would allow our sector to get back to work with least compromise. But suggestions are very welcome, so feel free to get in touch if you have other ideas or have tested other solutions.