New production pairs drones with young dancers

Summary

The latest piece by Brussels choreographer Ugo Dehaes unites seven heavy-duty drones with seven urban dancers

Unexpected duets

The story of how Ugo Dehaes came to include drones in his new dance production starts a couple of years ago, when the Brussels-based choreographer joined De Jonge Academie. Launched at the behest of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, this association brings together local young scientists and artists.

The story of how Ugo Dehaes came to include drones in his new dance production starts a couple of years ago, when the Brussels-based choreographer joined De Jonge Academie. Launched at the behest of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, this association brings together local young scientists and artists. 

True to its mission, De Jonge Academie connected Dehaes to researchers affiliated with the University of Leuven and the nanotech research centre imec, which were both conducting experiments with drones and GPS signals.

“They were looking for a project to implement their knowhow indoors, and my choreography RATS turned out to be the ideal vehicle,” says Dehaes, 40, a former student of Brussels dance school P.A.R.T.S who began his career dancing for Meg Stuart.

The six Parrot drones used on stage are strong, not too expensive at approximately €250 each and outfitted with a custom software platform. Still, Dehaes says it was a major challenge to connect the story he wanted to tell with existing drone technologies and the computer programme developed by the Leuven researchers. 

Urban meets contemporary

During rehearsals and performances, barcode-like markers that line the floor of the stage keep the drones under control by way of an internal camera and GPS system. “The drones receive commands ordering them in which direction to fly from the central computer 24 times a second,” Dehaes explains. “The one drone I operate myself dances a more intimate duet with a contemporary dancer.”

In the new production, which tours across Flanders until the end of April with a second leg in the autumn, the threatening drones serve as a contemporary metaphor. Loosely based on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the drones double as the simultaneously fascinating and irritating rats, the seven dancers as the kids, and Brussels-based dancer Jenna Jalonen as the rat-catcher, who tries to get the other performers interested in contemporary dance.

Only rarely will a drone still fly against a wall or into another drone, but the system makes sure they can’t fly into the audience

- Choreographer Ugo Dehaes

“I didn’t know all that much about urban dance, but I liked the explosiveness of urban battles,” explains Dehaes. “These short choreographies lack structure and tend to have a strong narrative; it’s all about imitating and showing off.”

To find his dancers, Dehaes turned to fABULEUS, the Leuven-based theatre and dance company. It organised workshops in local dance classes and sport halls, followed by a boot camp and auditions.

The seven dancers chosen vary in age from 11 to 16 and hail from different parts of the country. On stage, they dance not to the chart-topping R&B tunes of Drake, Rihanna and the like, but also contemporary instrumental music composed by Adrian Newgent.

Eventually the dancers started to like Newgent’s composition, Dehaes says, just as they did the contemporary dance routines, which gradually blended in with their urban moves.

Mutual trust

Naturally, rehearsals were beset with unexpected, drone-related obstacles: interfering wi-fi signals, worn-out markers and the heavy wind produced by the drones. “Only a few days before opening night did it all work out,” says Dehaes. “Only rarely will a drone still fly against a wall or into another drone, but the system makes sure a drone cannot fly into the audience.”

At first, the choreographies of the drones and the dancers were rehearsed separately. When they finally met on stage, the curiosity of the teenagers had reached a fever pitch.

Still, real interaction is limited since Dehaes wrote distinctive choreographies for the drones and the dancers. Only the adult in the group, Jalonen, gets up close to the drones.

“There’s a huge mutual trust,” says the choreographer about his bond with the Finnish contemporary dancer, with whom he also collaborated in his 2013 production Grafted. “When I command a drone to fly by closely, I know she will move out of the way when necessary.”

Until 29 April, across Flanders, with second leg in autumn
© Fabuleus/ Clara Hermans