The art of AI

As acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor OBE and visual artist Ben Cullen Williams prepare to reveal their reimagining of Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie, Juliette Barber discovers how they have fused human creativity and artificial intelligence to create a project that redefines the boundaries of artistic expression

Inception and Innovation

In the heart of Katowice, Poland, the stage is set for a ground-breaking world premiere. The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR), under the baton of Edward Gardner, is poised to unveil a revolutionary reinterpretation of Karol Szymanowski’s ballet Harnasie. But this is no ordinary production; it’s a bold fusion of human creativity and artificial intelligence (AI), a project that pushes the boundaries of traditional performance art.

The project, entitled A Body for Harnasie, draws inspiration from the theme of Harnasie – a folk story of a girl, a shepherd and a robber (harnaś), set against the backdrop of the Tatra mountains, a region renowned for its stunning landscapes and rich cultural heritage. Choreographer Wayne McGregor OBE and visual artist Ben Cullen Williams seek to evoke the essence of this setting through their innovative use of technology and choreography.

“We’re redefining the work through choreography, incorporating AI-generated content with film to explore different ways of seeing the body,” explains Williams. “The Tatra mountains serve as a symbolic backdrop, influencing both the visual and thematic elements of the performance.”

Challenges and Triumphs

Reimagining a production of this scale was not without its challenges. From coordinating multiple artistic elements to adapting to diverse performance venues, the journey was fraught with logistical hurdles. “Performing in a concert hall presents challenges as it lacks the space and infrastructure of an opera house or theatre,” notes General and Programme Director at NOSPR Ewa Bogusz-Moore. “Not only are we limited by space, but we also only have 24 hours to build something, so we’re restricted by what can realistically be done in such a short time frame.”

The actual performance poses another set of challenges, particularly in synchronising the orchestra’s performance with the kinetic sculpture and projected visuals. “One of the big challenges is the orchestra,” explains Williams. “It can fluctuate in terms of the tempo and timing of the music; because of that there’s a challenge to get everything visually lining up and in sync.” 

Conversely, Bogusz-Moore sees the orchestra’s presence as a strength. “With all the unstable elements that performing the Szymanowski in this guise presents, we need to have some kind of stability and the orchestra and the music will provide this – we just don’t want them to be distracted by the sculpture hanging above them.”

Yet, amid these challenges emerges a sense of excitement and possibility, with all partners committed to pushing artistic boundaries. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time when you’re doing things that have never been done before,” acknowledges Williams. 

The Fusion of Art and Technology

At the heart of A Body for Harnasie lies a seamless integration of AI and human creativity. Throughout McGregor’s choreography, Williams incorporates AI-generated content to explore different ways of seeing the body. “The sculpture serves as a mechanical way of suggesting the body, while the AI-generated visuals offer a technological perspective,” he explains.

This fusion of mediums — live-action footage, AI-generated content and sculptural elements — creates a multi-dimensional experience that challenges traditional notions of performance art. “We’re using AI to abstract and change something existing, to try and create new meanings and new ways of looking at the world,” emphasises Williams.

Bogusz-Moore acknowledges that there is “some anxiety around AI in the sector” and reflects on the significance of integrating it into the creative process. “I think, as a sector, when we think about AI we focus on the threats to the musicians, the composers and so on. But there are not that many projects to think of where AI can enhance the creative process by taking something from it to make it possibly better and more creative. I do hope that with the emergence of projects like Harnasie that orchestras will be more open to experimentation.”

Anticipating the Audience Experience

As the premiere approaches, anticipation mounts for what promises to be a transformative concert experience. “We hope to create a mesmerising visual and artistic experience that brings a fresh reading of Szymanowski’s ballet to an orchestral setting,” shares Bogusz-Moore. “With this project, we aim to engage diverse audiences and foster a sense of inclusion.”

“The key is for them all to feel included,” asserts Williams, emphasising the project’s potential to captivate both traditional and non-traditional audiences. “By embracing technology and innovation, we’re able to reach new audiences and ignite curiosity.”

This is a sentiment shared by Sophie Harvey, Marketing Manager at the LPO, “It’s a really exciting project for us, because it’s so different from what we would normally do and allows us to reach new audiences and try different marketing approaches,” says Harvey of the plans to target the orchestra’s three main audiences: the LPO’s core audience, the dance audience and the culture seeker audience.

Looking Ahead

As A Body for Harnasie prepares to captivate audiences in Poland, London and beyond, the future trajectory of the project brims with possibility. “After Poland, it goes to the Southbank Centre in London and then onto Bruges, with interest from the US,” reveals Bogusz-Moore. “We’re exploring opportunities for sustainability, including the potential for the sculpture to exist as an installation, possibly even at the World Expo 2025 in Osaka in Japan.”

For Williams, the project represents a bold step towards a future where art and technology converge in unprecedented ways. “This collaboration pushes the boundaries of what’s possible,” he muses. “It’s a testament to the power of innovation and imagination.”

In a world where creativity knows no bounds, A Body for Harnasie stands as a testament to the transformative potential of art and technology — a symphony of innovation that promises to redefine the concert experience for generations to come.

The Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR) will give the world premiere of A Body for Harnasie in Katowice on 26 February with London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) conductor Edward Gardner.

The UK premiere, performed by the LPO will take place at the Southbank Centre on 6 March, followed by a concert in Belgium at the Concertgebouw Brugge on 9 March.