StellarScape tells the story of a massive star, the piece is an unprecedented combination of music, dance, and cinematography, blended with state-of-the-art data visualization and astrophysical simulation.
The video made its world premiere at the Arizona Wonder House at SXSW 2022 on March 13.
The theme is astronomical, but the vision is humanistic. It shows that computers can be harnessed to create complex and evocative music, and technology can be deployed to display the grace of human movement and dance. A goal for the project is to draw new audiences to a modern, science inspired multimedia work.
StellarScape was produced by University of Arizona Professors Dr. Yuanyuan (Kay) He, director and composer, from the Fred Fox School of Music; Dr. Chris Impey, deputy head of the Department of Astronomy; and Dr. Winslow Burleson, expert in human computer interaction from the School of Information. They collaborated with School of Dance alumna and current Professor of Practice Hayley Meier, Devin Bayly (Research Technology Department) Gustavo Almeida (Closed Loop Sensor Lab, HS/Bio5 with international renowned guest visual artists Georgios Cherouvim (ch3 studio, Greece).
What was the impetus for the project, to include motion sensors, data visualization and astrophysical simulation?
KAY HE: We started this project right after the pandemic hit—we all felt lost, trapped, and disconnected from the world and other human beings. A few of us started Zoom meetings and we wanted to create a project that made people feel connected to the world. Ultimately, we are all stardust brought to life and all part of one race—the human race. No matter what we are going through, whether it be a pandemic or some other adversity, we must all remember that we are all in this together and connected on a fundamental and cosmic level. There is only one Earth, and we are all on this cosmic speck of stardust called Earth—there is no you or I, just us.
StellarScape is a story of a massive star, from its birth to its death, echoing the theme of darkness and light. Just as this project aims to create connections, we wanted to create connections between different fields. Sensors are a vital technology in the modern world—they can be used in health, athletics and science but why can’t they be used as vehicles for artistic expression? What happens if we put sensors on dancers and capture their motion data and use that data set to function as the driving force of an interactive and immersive audiovisual experience? Sophisticated astronomical data visualizations, coupled with human-based motion capture and low-latency interactivity, play a significant role in realizing the dynamic nature of StellarScape.
In the project, we use cameras to detect motions, microphones to capture sound and wearable sensors to let “particles” in the simulation interact with, and be driven by, music and dance. The astrophysical simulations along with the scientific storyline represent the scientific component of the project while the poetic narrative and the performing arts are the human component, and both of these run parallel throughout the project—we are in the universe and the universe is in us.
Why is multimedia work so important to you?
KAY HE: Although I am a composer, I mostly consider myself a multimedia artist. My work often explores and intertwines various forms of media to create unique audiovisual experiences that engage the audience. Many of my works involve collaborations with choreographers, dancers, video artists, sound designers and stage lighting and design artists as well as scientists and engineers. I love working with people from other disciplines and I love to ask questions and learn from people with expertise in other fields. I feel intrigued by their knowledge and passion for their respective fields. Without interdisciplinary collaboration, an immersive multimedia work like StellarScape simply would not be possible.
As a multimedia artist, I am passionate about creating multimedia works through interdisciplinary collaboration. As an educator, I would like to share my experience and skills with my students. Transdisciplinary collaborations are viewed as beneficial by universities around the world yet collaborative curricula present many obstacles for students because these curricula are not usually well developed. StellarScape forms a prototype for a practical system of interdisciplinary curricula. The project integrates different art forms and scientific knowledge into a unified outcome. Interdisciplinary collaborations can help students advance their skills, further their ability to think critically and collaboratively in multiple disciplines and develop the cognitive ability to succeed in modern society. StellarScape is an art performance, but it is also a research project to forge new platforms to bring artists and scientists together and create opportunities for innovating new art forms.
What was your experience like performing with motion sensors?
HAYLEY MEIER: This is actually not the first time that I have performed with motion sensor equipment (although this is the most advanced and interactive form that I’ve ever been involved with). It has been such an amazing process. The ability to capture motion on the screen through dance brings an entirely different visual effect to most of the performing that I have done in my career thus far. I really had to think big picture while developing the movement choreography for this section. We did a lot of practice testing with the motion sensors to see what created the most dramatic results for the screen and played around with all sorts of effects in relation to the musical score. Everything had to synthesize together to create a certain aesthetic and tell a story. I think this is my favorite section to perform because no two performances will be exactly the same. Everything is happening in real-time and so it heightens my nerves each time that I perform it. I have to admit, as a performer, I enjoy that little bit of added pressure because when it goes smoothly, it’s really fulfilling!
What was your reaction to the final product?
HAYLEY MEIER: The final product exceeds all of my expectations! I knew that this project was going to be cool to work on, and something completely different for me, but I didn’t quite grasp the entirety of it until I saw it captured on video. Even while initially performing it, I couldn’t really get the full picture of every different element that went into the production. It’s completely immersive and couldn’t be done without the collaborative efforts of everyone on our team. There are so many moving parts to this production, and it really has been rewarding to see all of our hard work pay off. I’m so excited for the premiere of this show and hope that we can bring a varied group of people together from our community to share in this interdisciplinary production. There is something for everyone to enjoy because it’s so multifaceted. It’s a really great way to bring many different people together and bring awareness to art and science and the power of collaboration.
KAY HE: As a director, my vision constantly changed throughout the development of the project. Brainstorming during the team meetings, troubleshooting during technology tests, and redefining artistic concepts all shaped my vision. The final product is exactly as I envisioned it, but it isn’t something I could have possibly imagined on day one. I am extremely excited for the video premiere at SXSW and we cannot wait to share our creative vision and hard work with the audience.
About Kay He
Dr. Yuanyuan (Kay) He is a composer and multimedia artist with roots in China. Her works often explore and intertwine various forms of media to create unique audiovisual experiences that engage the audience. Many of her works involve collaborations with choreographers, dancers, video artists, audio technicians, and stage lighting and design artists. As a multimedia composer, she is very active in the music community. Kay serves as the Creative Director for Electronic Music Midwest (EMM), which is an annual music festival dedicated to programming a wide variety of electroacoustic music and providing high quality electronic media performances. She is also the founder and Director of the Turn Up Multimedia Festival, which works to promote Interdisciplinary Collaboration, Culture-Connecting, and Equality. She is currently Assistant Professor at the University of Arizona, where she teaches composition, electro-acoustic music, multimedia, and orchestration.
About Hayley Meier
Hayley received her early training from the Draper Center for Dance Education in New York, then earned her BFA in Dance at the University of Arizona where she performed lead in George Balanchine’s, Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux and Serenade, and Ben Stevenson’s pas de deux, End of Time. In 2009, she became a company member of the Rochester City Ballet, in 2011 she joined River North Dance Chicago for five seasons where she performed all over the world, most notably as the lead female in Ivan Perez’s U.S. premiere of Flesh. Hayley has also performed as a guest artist for numerous companies.
Hayley is fully certified in four Pilates apparatus: Mat, Reformer, Wunda Chair, and Cadillac, with advanced studies in Jumpboard and pre- and post-natal Pilates. At the height of the pandemic, Hayley founded Body by Hayley, a virtual full-body Pilates Mat class that focuses on strength-building, stability, proper alignment, longevity, and connectivity to others.
From 2017-2018, Hayley became UArizona School of Dance Artist in Residence, and completed her MFA in Dance at the University in May 2020. She is on faculty with the University as a full-time Assistant Professor of Practice and Undergraduate Advisor in the School of Dance.