Review: Beyond Black, The Place
4.0Overall Score

Where technology has starred, by necessity, as the understudy for physical connection in 2020, we might be wondering what other human qualities and desires could be replaced by a technological stand-in. 

Beyond Black is The Korean National Contemporary Dance Company’s grippingly impossible web of an experiment into how far artificial intelligence (AI) can reproduce human emotion in art. For this, they enlisted Madi, an AI system created by SLITSCOPE, designed to learn and translate the movements of eight dancers into data with which to choreograph an entire performance.

Having created 1000 minutes of motion from just 256 minutes of dance data, Madi’s enhanced productivity is what distinguishes her unique artistic capacity. This way, the choreographer, Shin Chango, is not replaced, but in creative cyborg collaboration. Where the choreographic circuit flows from the dancers, to Madi, and back to the dancers, this continuum forms a compelling framework for Beyond Black that discovers technology, humanity and dance as entwined loops of experimentation and interpretation. 

As the dancers perform to a camera, their movements are digitally preserved and transmitted to us. Through this, they also maintain their own inhuman condition – their bodies, and how we receive them, being absorbed into the cyborg collisions and questions of the piece. Their uniformly flesh-coloured costumes manifest futuristic fears of the erasure of human individuality, but the recorded sounds of breath from rehearsals foreground an organic layer of memory and life in these very real bodies.

Taking on a more passive viewership, as the camera chases and weaves around the dancers, there is a sense that we, the spectators, too have been replaced by a technological counterpart. Luckily, then, Beyond Black is exquisitely filmed: it finds its niche virtuosity in aerial, intimate or moving shots that make a convincing case for the duet between choreography of digital production and the movements of the human body.

While some shots float the dancers in intoxicating frames of complete blackness, others reveal the light catching glimpses of rigging, tape and scuff marks. These material traces of the theatre that edge through the cracks in a pristine technological landscape add an almost dystopian sense of pre-covid nostalgia for live/living performance. 

Much of the interest and authority of the film comes with characteristically scientific verbal explanations of Madi’s process in choreographing the work. Whilst this feels necessary towards understanding the complexity and technological efforts behind Beyond Black, a more artistic language would make a better and less disjointed case for the collaboration between AI and human creativities.

While their virtuosity and fluidity cannot be contested, moments where the dancers fall out-of-sync are all-too noticeable, given the technologically sharp promise of the piece. While this can be disappointing to the eye, it also means the viewer can easily find beauty in the dancers’ vitally human capacity for failure as Madi’s artificial creativity meets us through their imperfect bodies. Choreographic explorations of touch that blend bodies into one singular organism also stand apart in their poignant sense of connection that AI alone could never deliver.

According to Madi herself (voiced by Jung Dayeon), “dance is the harmony of time, space and energy” and as a continuously evolving and fluid form, it cannot be refined or coded by man or machine. But, alongside breath, body and touch, the compelling stakes and possibilities of failure in Beyond Black are what lead the human to prevail over suspicions that AI may threaten the sanctity of artistic emotion (at least for now).

Beyond Black is streaming online as part of A Festival of Korean Dance until 10th December. For more information, see The Place’s website.