Putting the ‘A’ in STEAM: Rowan Dance collaborates with Engineering for mainstage production

Putting the ‘A’ in STEAM: Rowan Dance collaborates with Engineering for mainstage production

Sophomore dance major, Valentina Giannattasio performs her solo during dance production, Exo-skin-esphere

For the first time in the history of both colleges, Rowan University’s College of Performing Arts and the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering collaborated to create Exo-skin-esphere, an experimental performance piece merging dancers with exoskeletal suits. 

The project came to life in the final MainStage production of 2022. 

In early 2022, dance adjunct Leslie Bush began brainstorming ideas for her next production. With her background in kinesiology and interactive technology, Bush is interested in how the human body impacts technology and is eager to find ways to extend the body in a visual or tangible way that translates on the stage. Her research led her to Performing Arts’ on-campus neighbor, Engineering. She read about the soft robotics lab and mechanical engineer assistant professor Mitja Trkov’s research into wearable and soft robotics. She reached out to Trkov. 

“Their labs deal with the human body as much as we do,” said Bush of Trkov’s soft robotics studies and her own work in elements of dance and improvisation. 

The two connected on their shared interests and devised a plan to research and create for a production this fall. The idea? Develop wearable technology that tracks the movement of dancers and uses that information to control other technology. 

Trkov brought in graduate student Pat Twomey and undergraduate student Aatish Gupta to begin research. Bush brought her cast into their lab and the dancers suited up with sensors and wires to go through a series of steps and movements so Trkov’s team could catalog movements and collect data. 

“People tend to think these are two very different things,” said junior Theatre Arts major and Exo cast member Skye Maldonado of visiting the engineering lab. “Through this process, engineering is discovering things right along with us.” 

The moment Maldonado references is when her cast mate, sophomore dance major Valentina Giannattasio was wearing the sensor and performed a backbend beyond the range the sensors could track. The engineers had to pause and reset everything. “We were testing their boundaries,” added Maldonado. 

Trkov and team were able to tailor the existing wearable technology used in his slip, trip and fall prevention to detect the motion of the dancers and inform a new algorithm. This adjustment made the system way better, according to Trkov. “We’ve enhanced it from 2D motion and are now capable of detecting 3D motion and kinematics,” he said. 

From there, the engineers in tandem with the production's costume designer, Emily Stansbury, began work on the soft robotics piece. Trkov and team used soft actuators or “bladders” they developed but modified them for the stage, using a 3D printer to create a larger version inspired by origami shapes. While the costume designer and engineers worked on the research and design, the dancers rehearsed using knit blankets and pool floaties to mimic their costumes and learn to adapt their bodies.

Bush brought more students into the creation of the piece by creating the video projections and audio tracks used during the show with dancers. They recorded breathing sounds during rehearsals and used an infrared camera to capture movement to project on stage. It was a true team effort. 

After working right down to the wire, Exo-skin-esphere premiered on the Tohill stage in early December. According to Bush, unlike other productions Exo was not a storytelling piece and she hopes audience members walked away with a new perspective and more questions. 

Trkov says the collaboration with dance is a relatively unexplored area, certainly the first at Rowan. He sees an opportunity to expand this project and his work with wearable technology and soft robotics in the future, noting there is more they can learn from each other. 

“As engineers, we’re always looking for different solutions,” added Trkov, who will teach a new course on soft robotics for the first time this spring. 

For Bush, the experimental collaboration is a testament to finding a way to integrate arts and innovative, experimental work.

“We’re putting the ‘A’ in STEAM and showing our impact as artists in other fields and what people can learn from us,” said Bush of the collaboration. “I think this show will help introduce the new era of the dance program at Rowan.”