Musician Harry Yeff on Directing the World's First Ever A.I Ballet 'Fusion'

by Christina Donoghue on 6 July 2023

With help from the Leipzig International Ballet director and Choreographer Mario Schroeder, speech artist and musician Harry Yeff has composed the world's first ever A.I Ballet. Art and culture editor Christina Donoghue finds out more.

With help from the Leipzig International Ballet director and Choreographer Mario Schroeder, speech artist and musician Harry Yeff has composed the world's first ever A.I Ballet. Art and culture editor Christina Donoghue finds out more.

'There is something quite beautiful about how it doesn't discriminate and helps people of all classes, enhancing everyone's ability' - Harry Yeff

As a kid from a working-class background who spent the better half of 15 years attending ballet classes, I, for one, know how elitist the art form can be. From the ages of three until 18, I found myself being judged on my posture, balance and technique while a greying man sat cheerily and stiffly by the piano, playing classical music straight from the Imperial Classical Ballet syllabus. This all happened in a suburb of North London where I grew up and despite not being the only child from such a background, it was drummed into me from a young age that this was not a world I was meant to be a part of. You'd be correct to think many other children will relate to this experience, especially considering the current Cost of Living crisis. However, speech artist and musician Harry Yeff is on a mission to democratise these institutions. The tool that's helping him do that? A.I.

'FUSION' at Oper Leipzig

Yeff's latest work has seen him direct and compose the multidisciplinary ballet production FUSION at Oper Leipzig in Germany, which fuses (pun intended) the boundaries of art and technology, placing it in the esteemed position of the world's first 'A.I. ballet'. When it comes to the creative process, A.I has been used to inspire everything from the music and set design to the costumes, choreography and even the concept that underpins the entire production. The story behind the ballet joins many of the world's best philosophers, past and present, in their quest to find the balance between humanity, A.I. and nature, also joining many composers, artists and designers in seeking inspiration in Plato's theory of the Divided Self to reflect this. Essentially, the work poetically explores the interactions of success and failure between human intelligence and machine intelligence while looking for a specific harmonic fusion that hangs in the balance.

'The piece was actually commissioned in 2020', Yeff tells me over Zoom; regardless, Yeff's history with A.I precedes this. 'I've been working with A.I for about seven years, primarily synthetic voice', Yeff informs me. With a background in 'the voice world' (as he refers to it), the journey to FUSION actually started with a previous work by Yeff called Second Self, which he performed at Europe's oldest art and tech festival, Ars Electronica, in Linsburg. 'As part of the piece, I did a number of real-time duets with synthetic voices and in the audience was Mario Schroeder, the ballet director and choreographer at Leipzig International Ballet.' Noting Schroeder's exhaustion with the repetitiveness of Ballet productions, Yeff informs me the director 'had been looking for someone to interrupt the traditional ballet world from a compositional standpoint but also from a creative direction standpoint incorporating tech.' The result? FUSION.

Harry Yeff performing as part of 'FUSION' at Oper Leipzig

Generative A.I. has inspired all aspects of the Ballet, including everything from the concept to the music, set design and choreography to the costumes. In addition to the main parts of the Ballet production being produced with the assistance of A.I, Yeff also created an A.I. series of imagined ballet dancers, using portraits of the 35 international dancers in the actual show. These portraits represent a sort of 'fusion' between the real dancers and the 'fake' ones. Guided by choreography from Mario Schroder and stage design by Paul Zoller, the ballet visually depicts the journey toward harmony, exploring the mesmerising blend of light, water, and shadows.

Early on in our conversation, Yeff is quick to reveal his background; I am surprised to realise it almost mirrors mine. 'I come from quite a rough working-class background, and it's through working with technology and voice that I love contrast. So, this idea of myself moving into fine art and then bringing tech to a much older discipline is really inspiring to me.' Asking why Yeff feels it's important to let me know about his class, he tells me that, when talking about tech, 'it's paramount' this is mentioned. 'I'm interested in what ideas - compositional, choreographical, set design and everything else - can be generated by working with these systems, especially in a very traditional discipline. There's no way you would have these kinds of anomalies of direction coming into these institutions without all of the change happening.'

The change Yeff is referring to is the notion that these establishments can not only accept but actively embrace ideas from individuals whose backgrounds were less fortunate or seen as 'less educational' in the eyes of the elite. 'I am also neurodivergent', Yeff informs me. 'I think being different ten years ago was seen as a weakness. In contrast, being able to interrupt the status quo is such an asset now. Someone who can come in from a different world with a completely different perspective and be appreciated for their ability to understand the context, research and learn is an incredible thing.' Yeff continues, 'I always mention my background and that I'm neurodiverse because the places I go and the environments I work in - especially more recently - are at the top end of institutions. I am different from that. And I think difference is important.'

'FUSION' at Oper Leipzig

Rather than joining the fear-mongering hype that's recently penetrated the A.I conversation, Yeff is unquestionably a supporter of its beauty. 'When you are in control, and you have the literacy to understand how this can empower you, A.I is nothing more than a creative intelligence flashlight to see further', Yeff states. 'I think the things that people sometimes don't appreciate is these tools, if you have an idea now, will help a young 15-year-old person on a council estate generate new types of imagery, sound and text. Maybe they can't spell as well as other people, but now they can have a proofreader'. (For free!) There is something quite beautiful about how it doesn't discriminate and helps people of all classes, enhancing everyone's ability.

It's clear Yeff's view of A.I is one that comes from an extremely positive standpoint; after all, he credits such systems with helping him achieve career success by opening doors that would've remained firmly locked. Yet, I still can't help but wonder if he sees any truth in the recent damaging reports on A.I. 'The power of these systems is new, and intelligence is power,' Yeff affirms. 'We have access to intelligence on tap in an extremely disruptive way. If you think back to every single time there has been a new iteration of tech… this hesitant response to A.I is all too predictable', Yeff assures. 'Think of that famous tale of when they played the first moving image which was a train in a cinema, everyone (reportedly) ran out of the cinema with fear', Yeff laughs. 'It's inherent that fear comes with these systems because they're new. Regulation on a political government level is very important.' He uses the example of consent to argue the importance of regulation. 'When an artist's data is being taken and used to generate without consent; that is wrong. I think any form of consent, doesn't matter what it is, should always be considered whether it's A.I. or anything else', clarifies Yeff. 'However, I do think, despite all of the concerns and very right concerns regarding regulation, there's going to be some explosive art. Things you could never imagine are going to be generated because of human beings being able to manifest their visions in new ways, and that's something that I can only say I undoubtedly support.'

'FUSION' at Oper Leipzig

When it comes to using A.I as a tool, there are two main genres of working with these systems. There's something called 'general data sets' of which Chat GBT would be an example, which is a large language model with general dispensable internet information; then there's Yeff's way of working. 'Chat GBT is very different to me collecting 1000 hours of my own voice and using that to generate new insights into something that I've spent 40,000 hours practising and is arguably world-class in its range', he tells me. 'My pool of reference becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, and therefore, the competition becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. The first time I heard a synthetic voice which came from my own voice but was not me speaking, I thought, "This is a really beautiful, spiritual and potent thing." Its roots are me, my data, and my information, but the output was something else entirely.'

So, what does the future of ballet look like for Yeff? In short, vastly different from the stuffy dregs the industry has held onto for too long. 'The main thing', Yeff starts, before admitting his answer is 'a little bit Meta', is that 'FUSION is a prediction of workflow that I think will be common from now on'. How common, you ask? Very. 'I really do think, or at least hope you'll start seeing productions like this again and again and again, where you have this system, second self A.I. systems that are assisting the creative process in a really beautiful way.' However, if you're a creative who works in these institutions, it's vital to stress A.I 'isn't coming for your job', whatever BBC News tells you. 'The attempt is to enhance the creative process', Yeff Clarifies. 'Not replace it'.

'FUSION' at Oper Leipzig
Harry Yeff at FUSION.



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