Dancing Digital Progress Blog

What it Takes: An Interview with Digital Dance Resource Pioneers

by: Rebecca Salzer, Project Director

Introduction

Sybil Huskey and Melanie Aceto are dance artists and educators who have contributed significantly to the planning phase of the Dancing Digital Project. Part of why they have been invaluable members of the working group is that each of them has experience designing and realizing a novel online resource for dance.  Sybil is one of the creators of Video Collaboratory (http://videocollaboratory.com/) and Melanie created Choreographic Lineage (http://www.choreographiclineage.buffalo.edu/).  Their full biographies can be accessed at https://adhc.lib.ua.edu/danceprogress/bios/.  Working with Sybil and Melanie over the past few years it has become clear that their collective knowledge and experience is not only useful for Dancing Digital but would also be helpful for other dance artists inspired to expand dance knowledge online – an especially relevant concept during the Covid-19 pandemic.  With this in mind, we set up a conversation about their experiences developing Video Collaboratory and Choreographic Lineage. What follows is a transcript of our conversation on August 11, 2020.

Rebecca:  Could we start with a summary of your projects for those who may be unfamiliar with them?  Please give us an elevator pitch.

Elevator Pitches

Video Collaboratory

Sybil Huskey: The Video Collaboratory is a web-based private platform for collaborating around video documents, much like you would use Google Docs for collaborating around text. It allows you to put a comment in a very specific point in the video without referencing the timeline. So it’s very easy. 

Rebecca Salzer: Can you elaborate on how the commenting functionality works? 

Sybil Huskey: As the video is going, you select the comment function and click where you want to say something. The comment box appears, and you type a comment and/or make a drawing. This also adds a little marker on the timeline. When you click on either the comment or the marker, it takes you back to that specific place in the video. If it’s a point comment, it’ll loop for about four seconds so that you can look at it multiple times without having to scrub back and forth. Those are two of the really good things about the system: that all the comments are accessible alongside the video; and you can go to any comment and corresponding time in the video by simply clicking the comment or the marker. Plus, you can also color code your comments. 

Rebecca Salzer: In what other ways does Video Collaboratory activate sharing of video online? 

Sybil Huskey: Video Collaboratory allows you to upload your own, or your students’ videos, or you can link to Vimeo or YouTube. If it’s a video that you posted, you can change the speed, if you need to see something go slower or faster. As we’ve developed this – because it is always in development – we’ve added other kinds of functionality, like filtering. If I wanted to see all the comments that mentioned something about arms, for instance, I could type in “arms” and see all of the comments that have to do with arms or arm gestures. There’s also an analytics part that we added in so you can see what part of the video people are watching and where the interest is not as great. Another feature – one we have a patent on – is that you can set up a whole segment of the video so you can make comments. That has been very, very helpful especially in teaching workshops. In a workshop I did, we put all the video segments that we wanted these teachers to watch. They didn’t have to go hunt for them in the larger videos. They could just go right in, click the comment marking the segment, and it would take them to it. Plus, everyone who has a membership to Video Collaboratory has a workspace that allows you to be part of any number of projects or classes. So it’s very easy to navigate. Once you go into your project, you will see thumbnails of the videos. Once you click on a thumbnail, you’re into the actual platform where you can begin to comment.

Choreographic Lineage

Rebecca Salzer: Thank you!  Melanie, can you please describe Choreographic Lineage?

Melanie Aceto: Choreographic Lineage is an interactive web-based network illustrating connections between dance artists, their teachers, their students, their collaborators, and people they were influenced by, like musicians or authors. It’s intended as a global resource for investigating artistic influences, career paths, choreographic connections, and complex and obscure relationships. 

Rebecca Salzer: Where do the data on these relationships come? 

Melanie Aceto: It’s user reported. If you studied with a person, danced for them, etc., then you would report that. That has its drawbacks. It is possible a user might not report a relationship for whatever reason, and that may obscure the influence. But, I think that’s okay because the point is to see the relationships overall, not the minutia. For instance, why a person’s work looks a certain way – hopefully, you can use Choreographic Lineage to say, “oh, this person danced in this company for 15 years.” And it could even be that their work looks very different from those they’re connected to, that they went the opposite way. Choreographic Lineage is flexible enough not to have to imply a specific type of influence. It is also unique because it tracks those relationships that may not show up otherwise: people you haven’t danced with or for, but seeing their work has influenced you substantially, what your work looks like or how you think about what you make. So I wanted to allow for that. 

Rebecca Salzer: Where do you see Choreographic Lineage filling gaps in dance knowledge?

Melanie Aceto: The thing that keeps me excited about it is that a resource like this doesn’t yet exist as far as I know: the ability to find out where someone studied, who they started with, who their influences were. You can’t find that unless you call the person up or if there’s some sort of documentary film made about them to learn about their lineage. It could really be the departing point for a researcher wanting to learn more about an artist’s work. I see Choreographic Lineage as not the ultimate source, but as a point of departure, like the first place you would go to find out, in general, a sketch of this person’s life. 

History of Development

Video Collaboratory

Rebecca Salzer: Great. Tell me about the development of your projects.  

Sybil: The Video Collaboratory was originally called The Choreographer’s Notebook. It began as a research tool for us. It grew from a need to be able to talk about the details of rehearsal videos when we were not in the studio. At the time, I had a National Science Foundation grant with some computer scientists to do real time sensing choreographic projects over a three-year period. Because it was a research project, we were trying different hardware, different software and different kinds of applications for the dancers. Each iteration was trying something new. So, of course, it didn’t always work perfectly the first time. What we found was that we really needed to be able to look at the rehearsal video from the last run of the previous rehearsal and be able to talk about that when we weren’t sitting in the studio. We started out always showing the last rehearsal, and it was using up this valuable studio time to go “well, this should maybe go here. Oh, let’s rewind that.” It was very time consuming. So, one of the computer scientists said, “Let’s see if we can’t do something about that.” So one of the PhD students, who is now a co-founder, was charged with doing some coding to develop a solution so that everyone could see the rehearsal video before the next rehearsal: the dancers, the technicians, the computer scientists, the lighting designer, the visual artists involved with us, even the costumer, who was intimately involved because of where these hardware pieces had to be embedded relative to the movement. So, everybody had access to that, and people could post questions at very specific places in the video. They could respond to each other and basically have an asynchronous discussion. In this way, at the next rehearsal, we were starting with a good foundation. We didn’t have to backtrack; a lot of problems had already been solved. Sometimes the dancers would even solve some of the performance issues on their own. So, that’s where we started. 

Rebecca Salzer: What year are we talking about? 

Sybil Huskey: 2010 was the start of it. 

Rebecca Salzer: So, your collaborators were also academics at this point, and the person coding for you was a graduate student? 

Sybil Huskey: Right. We had three different PhD students working on this project with us because it was a multi-pronged project. Part of the project was also using galvanic skin response to looking at audience responses to the dance. So, at this point, there were three PhD students, two computer science faculty, me, and one dance undergrad. 

Rebecca Salzer: And who are your partners now? How is it structured now? 

Sybil Huskey: After we finished with the NSF project – in which we had used this program, The Choreographer’s Notebook, to create all these dances – several people looked at what we had made and said, “Well, this could be really great for a lot of fields that use video, not just dance.” And since video was being increasingly used in a variety of fields, they said, “you really should get a provisional patent.” So, we applied for a provisional patent, and we received it. Then we decided that, since it’s obviously going to have applicability outside of dance, to change the name. We chose “Video Collaboratory” because it’s like you’re working in a laboratory; you’re collaborating; and, the medium is video. Ultimately, we got two patents on Video Collaboratory, and around 2015 we formed a Limited Liability Corporation. And, because this was developed out of a university, albeit with grants that we wrote, we had to license the technology from the university because we had used university space and resources in the process. So, we have a licensing agreement from the university to which, of course, we pay royalties. It’s a very complicated document, but it also talks about how much money the university gets if we’re bought out. It’s been complex, and it’s way more complicated than I would ever have thought. Certainly, having it as a business has been very, very challenging. 

Choreographic Lineage

Rebecca Salzer: Melanie, what’s the history of Choreographic Lineage’s development? 

Melanie Aceto: Choreographic Lineage started in 2011 with a focus group. So, I think I had the idea, you know, 2009, 2010. I don’t remember exactly where it came from, but it’s not a new idea. I’m just trying to solve the problem of how you can’t know much about a choreographer’s influences on their work from their biography. They don’t often include that information. So, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have a network that connects everybody in terms of who they’ve studied with, and who their influences are?” I got some funding through University at Buffalo to assemble a focus group of students, a couple artists in the field, a librarian, a computer scientist, and Maura Keefe who is a dance historian, as well as myself, to see if there was interest. They were all from UB, my small network, aside from Maura Keefe who was at SUNY Brockport and now is at University of Maryland; Monica Bill Barnes who I brought in from New York City; and Libby Smigel, Dance Archivist for the Library of Congress. We met for a full day and brainstormed, and we talked about the possibilities and the idea. Since the feedback from the focus group was positive, I moved forward with trying to find a collaborator. That was my biggest challenge. I just had the idea but not the ability to build it. So, we brought in one company from the city of Buffalo to talk about what it would cost to build something like this. Not only was it cost prohibitive, but we quickly ran into concerns about maintenance. The company said, “you know, this is a live thing.  If we build it and give it to you, how are you going to make changes and update it?” So, it was immediately apparent that I had to have someone work with me throughout this entire process. That it wasn’t really hirable in the sense that I could outsource it. So, I started knocking on doors. Although it seems pretty obvious to me now that I needed a computer scientist, a coder, at the time I didn’t even know who to ask. In 2011, I didn’t even know I needed a coder. I didn’t know if I needed a mathematician or a statistician. I just ended up finding a collaborator through my network. I knew Robyn Sullivan at the University at Buffalo. She has many different titles and has played many different roles at UB, but I think at that time she was working in the Teaching and Learning Center. It was a great resource center for faculty that sadly no longer exists. But, she said, “why don’t you talk to Dr. Bina Ramamurthy”, a woman in computer science. So that was the first time I had a specific name for someone who would have a conversation with me. All other emails and literally knocking on doors were dead ends. So I had a conversation with Bina, and she said, “I’m interested. And I have graduate students that I could put on this.” Plus, she was experienced in getting funding for her own projects. So that’s how it started – with a focus group and then finding a collaborator. And I don’t know exactly when I met her, but it was shortly after the focus group. Like 2012. After that, we didn’t go around with too many names. We did go around some with trying to decide what to include. Is this just dance? Is it just modern dance? But we didn’t get hung up on those details. I added a graphic artist to the group, and a user experience guy. 

Cost of Development

Rebecca Salzer: Do you recall at all how much you were quoted by the outside company to build the resource that you were describing? 

Melanie Aceto: The company was called Algonquin. In February 2011, they quoted a minimum billing of $4,000 and a safe estimate of $4000 to $10,000 for the requirements analysis. That was how they would figure out what I needed and wanted. That was step one. Step two was a structured spec, which would include an additional fee for making the actual site. So, yeah—lots. 

Rebecca Salzer: Can you elaborate some on the ongoing and set-up costs you had, Sybil? 

Sybil Huskey: Well, let’s see. Um, there’s cloud computing. We had to have Amazon Web Services, and that is a monthly charge, even if no one absolutely no one is working on the platform at the time. It can be anywhere from $300-$500 a month with no users.

Rebecca Salzer: And that is server space? 

Sybil Huskey: Yes, it’s video processing and storage. It’s sort of the third component that makes everything work. So you have to have it. It’s what most online platforms run on, you know, have their engines running on a cloud provider. Ours is, of course, Amazon Web Services. And then, of course, we had – I’m just going to go to the bare bones – taxes and that usually also means you have to have an accountant charging you something every month to keep your books. If you have an employee, then you pay a payroll company to take care of all of the various withholding taxes and workman’s comp and all of those complications. And then costs like your domain name. A Google suite, also a monthly charge which you really have to have if you have a business. And insurance, which is every month because you can’t run a business and not have insurance, certainly with software. As far as coding goes, after we had made Video Collaboratory, we got a quote from a company in Durham, North Carolina, to see what it would cost to speed up our development. I think it was like something like $80/hour to outsource the coding work. Because coding takes forever. That was a few years ago, so I don’t know for now. But it could be a ballpark. 

Rebecca Salzer: Okay. Yeah, I’ve actually seen much higher rates recently. So, some of those are relevant to your business, specifically. Which costs might someone expect to have for an online resource that isn’t a business?

Sybil Huskey: It’s hard sometimes to separate them out. But, if I’m thinking in terms of just the software, just the platform… Certainly you’d need cloud computing, and someone to keep up with it. Somebody to fix something if it breaks or to add to it. Whether you have a business or not, that is certainly part of it. Obviously, if you are offering it as a free service, then probably you would not need insurance. Just a domain name, I suppose. You probably wouldn’t have any legal fees, unless you’re worried that somebody might come back and sue you. So, you might need some sort of disclaimer, depending on the resource — something users sign to acknowledge their responsibility in participating, saying that they give you permission to have that information. Otherwise, someone might decide suddenly, “Wait a minute. I don’t think I put that on there.” And, then they can come after you. We had quite a lot of legal preparation to prevent something like this. I think that cost us about $4,000. I guess we would have done that even if it had been open source. I don’t know.

Problems Experienced 

Sustainability/Scaling 

Rebecca: Melanie, when you were talking about what the web company said about your site being live and needing to be updated, you brought up some of the things I was hoping to get at. Over the last four years or so, I’ve gone through a learning process to better understand this idea that you’re building something living, something that requires continual maintenance. And, the meaning of the word “sustainability”, which is thrown around a lot. I still probably don’t have a full concept of it, but I’m beginning to understand it more in a digital context. It’s at the heart of what I wanted to talk to you both about. I think sometimes we think, “oh, look, I can throw up a free Wix page for that.” Or like, “I can make a website. I can embed my Vimeo link in it, and we’re done.” I know that you both are working on or have worked on projects that have much more innovative functionality than that. But, that was one of the key points of the conversation that I wanted to get to. 

Melanie Aceto: I can chime in that there were many people who said, “Oh yeah, that’s easy. You don’t need to hire anybody. You can just…You can just…” They kept saying, “You can just, you know, use this platform”, or “That’s super easy.” And I just kept coming back to the fact that what was available was not what I needed. The genealogy software out there was not appropriate, because it only offered two parents. I was looking for four relationships: people you studied with, people you danced for, people you collaborated with, and people you were influenced by. In a way it was general — like I don’t think it’s field-specific by any means. But, I felt like what I was after originally was a much bigger ask than just connections. Originally I also wanted to include in the network the duration of your relationship with someone, and the times of those relationships. When you studied with them. When you collaborated with them. Now, we’ve had to give up all of that, because it was paralyzing for a couple reasons. It was just too big of a project to start with all that. And, the people I was working with didn’t have that level of knowledge. So we’ve had to scale down. But that’s to say that, even in what I’m considering as it’s “simple” form, it was never something that I could just “just do”, or piggyback on something that already existed.

Rebecca Salzer: And can I add to that. If I understand the concept behind Choreographic Lineage, you want this thing to grow and grow and continue to work. So it’s really got to have the right coding to allow it to be expandable like that. 

Melanie Aceto: Yeah, and that’s becoming even more of an issue now. There’s the database part that has to be able to continue to grow, but we haven’t worked on yet how the visualizations grow. So that’s a whole kind of additional part: there are two chunks to Choreographic Lineage, the database part and the visualization part. Rendering 500 names is one thing. Rendering 500,000 names is a different thing. So, there’s the issue of scale. Since it’s living, it’s growing. And when it grows, you have scaling issues for sure.

Privacy

Rebecca: What sort of issues were you concerned with when designing Video Collaboratory? 

Sybil Huskey: I think that the aspect of privacy was the most important to us. We knew people were putting things on YouTube, but we wanted people to know that if they were working on a project, that those videos would only be accessible to the project members. And of course, obviously, since we were dealing with college age dancers, we especially did not want these images to be out everywhere. 

Reality Versus Expectations

Rebecca Salzer: If I were to give you a multiple choice question – “This experience has been (blank)  what I expected 10 years ago,” and your options are: A) much easier; B) about what I expected; C) much harder; D) something entirely different –  how would you answer? What’s the reality been in relation to the expectation, when you first had the idea?

Sybil Huskey: Business is complicated. You know, I think if we had just decided to make Video Collaboratory open source, we would have been done working on it by now. But, I think all of us felt like it was valuable, and you shouldn’t just give everything away. Even though we had very good guidance from the National Science Foundation (because we had subsequent grants from them: first as researchers, second as a small business in their business program), it was harder than we expected. We were so excited about it and so committed; it was our child, and we just kept pushing on. But, it’s not just hard work. There’s also a bit of luck with it, as to how well a commercial platform sticks, what kind of traction it gets, who’s interested in investing. It is all so complicated. And, in the middle of all of that, you have costs to continue to run the platform, even if you’re not doing further development on it –  just monthly costs that are substantial, actually. So, I think it’s hard. That’s why they always say 97% of startups fail. Or, I don’t think “fail” is a good word, but they don’t manage to get enough traction to make enough to keep going, basically. 

Rebecca Salzer: Okay, thank you. Melanie?

Melanie Aceto: It’s harder than I thought. In my life, most everything else I’ve tried to do, I could do myself with a little help. Like, I figured out how to buy a house with a little help from the bank. Choreographic Lineage, though, was me having an idea without the abilities to do anything else. I didn’t even know what questions to ask. I was at the mercy of other people. So, to answer your question, it was much more difficult than I expected, because of all the things I didn’t know or didn’t realize early on. Like, now it’s so clear to me that I needed an equally interested collaborator. I didn’t need someone to build something for me or someone to work “for” me. I needed someone with at least partial interest and investment in the project to work “with” me. For years, I arranged for graduate students to work on this project as a side project. So not only did they have very little time, but I didn’t have the knowledge to oversee their work. So, it was me working with a computer science graduate student, and I knew nothing. So, this thing was being built in the back end with no oversight. I had no idea where it was stored, if it was stored, if it was secure and stable. A million things like that. Looking back, though, I wouldn’t change a thing because of how much the process revealed to me over the years. I lucked out when UB hired a Professor of Practice in computer science, whose entire job is to provide graduate students in computer science and engineering with real world projects. I pitched Choreographic Lineage, and they put a team of graduate students plus a faculty mentor on it. They worked on it as part of the coursework, not an extra project. That was invaluable. From that experience, I learned that I needed people who had dedicated time coupled with the oversight. I still cannot make anything happen. I’m still in a position where I’m requesting that things happen. That’s a really hard role for me because nothing else in my life is like that. 

Moving Forward, Advice, and Working with Coders

Rebecca Salzer: I have three more questions. We’re running out of time here, so I’m going to give them all at once. You can decide what you respond to. They are: 

1) What’s the future of this look like, and how are you feeling about it? 

2) What one piece of advice would you give to someone else in a dance field with an idea that would require some sort of online access or the creation of the new online resource? 

3) How do we deal with imbalance in the relationship between the artists and the coder or other individuals who have the know-how to make these online resources function? I’ve heard so much related to what you’ve said earlier. Hearing feedback such as “That’s easy.” It’s not like sending a man to the moon in terms of technology, but it’s also not easy. The functionality or platform doesn’t exist, and somebody has to build it.

Melanie Aceto: The idea that this was “easy” was the main point of frustration for me with Choreographic Lineage in the beginning. I knew this was not new technology: it was a database and data visualization. What I’m looking for – even at its fullest version in my head – had to be possible with all the technology that was already available. In that sense, I knew it was “easy.” But, that was frustrating, because it was “simple” in that way but not at all simple, because it was this very specific application. I needed to figure out how to bridge the artists and the technology and the person who can make the technology work. Figuring this out is wrapped up in my one piece of advice: if possible, you need to find yourself a collaborator, someone who is genuinely interested in your project. Not in working “for” you. Now I have that. The same faculty member who manages the projects for the graduate students has taken an interest in choreographic lineage. So he’s not just simply like checking in on their code. He’s invested. He’s like, “Melanie, you ought to do this. Look what I made.” He’s added to the site himself. So my piece of advice is to find someone who can work with you and who has ideas as well. I couldn’t possibly think of the things that Alan was thinking of because I don’t have that knowledge base. When it comes to the future, I feel like I’m on a roller coaster. I start to think like, “oh, this is going to be great. We’re in a great place. I can collect so much lineage.” And then two people will use it, and something will come up. Not even a glitch. But some issue will arise. We’ll realize that we hadn’t thought about that permutation of whatnot. At the moment, we’re going to keep moving forward with this project. It will be pitched again in the fall for another team to work on it. My future looks like it will continue to be graduate computer science and engineering students chipping away at this at a snail’s pace, but I’m feeling optimistic because we’re in such a better place. We’re in a place where we can collect lineage, and we’re starting to shift to look towards the visualization network, which is frankly the piece that everybody would be interested in, now that we have the data collection form figured out. So, I’m optimistic, but I realistically will still move forward inch by inch.

Sybil Huskey: I feel everything you said, Melanie. I agree that having a collaborator is really key. When we first started out, Vikash Singh sat in on all of our rehearsals. Even though he was the original coder on The Choreographer’s Notebook, he didn’t really know anything about dance. He had just come to the United States from India to start his PhD program, and his mentor threw him into the dance studio, which we all still laugh about. And, he really cared about the project, along with another graduate student. They were really the technologists that masterminded the different software relative to the hardware we were using. When they weren’t writing the code, they were making suggestions. The main coder that we hired was just out of undergrad, but he’d already worked for the Department of Computer Science. And he was very good, but he was slow, because he had to learn a different coding language. That’s something that people don’t always take into consideration: not all coders can code everything. When you’re setting up a system, figuring out how your back end talks to your front end, you have to figure out what languages you need. So, I agree that you want someone who’s genuinely interested, who can also, like Melanie said, make suggestions. The same is true of the computer science professors who became involved. They developed an interest in dance and provided really helpful suggestions. Now we have a really developed platform. Of course, though, you can always do more. We have the patent to be able to further develop. So we could have voice commenting as opposed to text and drawing. But that costs a lot of money to develop. So right now, we’re happy with where the platform is. It’s really super functional. It’s been through lots of fires. Now, we’re looking to partner with someone, maybe a bigger company who wants to take Video Collaboratory with its license and its patents and all of that and and pretty much just absorb it into their operation. But, that’s not easy either. Nothing is easy. We have all these leads, and we talk to them, and get all these emails going back and forth. Then you have some face to face meetings, but then it sometimes just kind of fizzles out. At one point, we thought that a sovereign nation fund was really interested in us. We had several meetings and lots of emails and phone calls, and talks of in-person meetings in California, for almost two years. But, then the fund representative realized that we were not TikTok, that we weren’t going to reframe ourselves that way. You have to be willing, I think, in order to really get a platform out there, to knock on a lot of doors and have most of them shut in your face. Maybe not right away, but ultimately. Of course, I’m not making it sound fun. The truth is I’ve had a grand time. I mean, it’s been hard, but being hard doesn’t mean it’s not been fun. That sounds counterintuitive, but I have been thrilled with all the extra learning and the people and the problem solving I’ve had to do, and the humility I have had to admit. Because I’m not a computer scientist, and I don’t know coding. For me, you know, it’s been so different, especially having this company and doing this commercially. It’s so different than being in academia and so different from being a dance person. So, yes, it has been very hard. I’ve had some stomach issues over this through the years. But, I wouldn’t go back and say that I wish I hadn’t done it. I am very grateful for the opportunity because it’s also given me a lot of respect for people who do build big companies, who go through all these same things. Nobody is just suddenly a Google.