CAMBRIDGE — It was part college dance, part video game, part Simon Says, part high-tech experiment.
Happening — coincidentally — in the rain Sunday night, on darkened Jack Barry Field at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “UP: The Umbrella Project” was beautiful and a bit goofy.
“UP” is a collaboration between the Connecticut-based dance troupe Pilobolus and the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). More than 250 students and other members of the MIT community walked and ran and jumped around, holding umbrellas lit from beneath by battery-powered LEDs that changed color on command, operated via buttons on the umbrella handles.
In a raised booth, DJ Dana Haynes played happy, relatively easy beats, while Pilobolus associate artistic director Matt Kent shouted instructions through the PA, like a square dance caller at a rave: “Red on this side! Blue on this side! Now move toward each other! And when you meet, everybody turn purple!”
From the sidelines, it looked like a traffic jam of Japanese paper lanterns, lovely but chaotic.
There were students in raincoats and motorcycle boots, students in flip-flops and gym shorts. At least one couple shared an umbrella, holding hands. One woman carried her little white dog.
But a video camera on a power lift 65 feet above shot straight down on the illuminated umbrellas, and the live image appeared on a big screen on the other side of the field. There, the umbrellas became a sea of moving colored dots, like cells under a microscope or pixels in an old-school arcade game. Remember Centipede?
“There’s some green moving in a circle around the red. Can all the greens do that?” Kent asked, and when it didn’t go so well, added, “Don’t look at the screen. Look at each other.”
Was it art? Depends on your definition. It was charming to look at, and drew about 100 spectators despite the precipitation. “Are you filming a music video?” a passerby asked.
Not exactly. CSAIL’s director, Daniela Rus, and researchers at its Distributed Robotics Lab will study the video to better comprehend what happens when larger and larger groups try to function via a simple set of commands. The more dancers you have, the more individual variation there will be. Putting humans through their paces this way, the scientists hope, will help them understand what happens “when algorithms start to replace choreography,” as Pilobolus executive director Itamar Kubovy said.
Whatever the source of a command, Kubovy said, music “allows the group to feel like they’re moving together, with a good sense of purpose and community, which turns out with people to be a very important part of getting something done, whereas with robots and machines, they don’t care so much about what music’s playing.”
It rained last October, too, when Pilobolus premiered “UP” at the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. “It is an umbrella project,” Kobovy said cheerfully.
“If you’re a freshman at MIT, turn blue!” Kent directed, and soon he was sifting the crowd in other ways as well: “If you’re a humanities major, come toward me.”
As the event passed the one-hour mark, he had different groups spell out M-I-T and form a smiley face, then repeat the tricks until they looked effortless on the big screen. DJ Kent’s laptop pumped out an upbeat chorus from Sufjan Stevens. And no one seemed to mind the rain getting heavier.
It may be science, but some of the Pilobolus staff was already talking about how much fun it would be to do it at the South by Southwest festival, or maybe on the National Mall.
Joel Brown can be reached at