DIY Electrified Outfits Light Up The Ballet

Hello, high-tech tutus
PSC1214_Manual Justin STEELE

As a dancer, Lynn Parkerson performed in traditional productions of The Nutcracker. Now the founding artistic director of Brooklyn Ballet is adding technology to the classic holiday show, with help from Brooklyn-based hacker collective NYC Resistor. Network engineer Nick Vermeer, wearables wiz Olivia Barr, and computer securities expert Billie Ward collaborated on LED-enhanced costumes that light up in response to dancers’ motion. On tutus, the effect is evocative of falling snow. And for the ballet’s mysterious Drosselmeyer character, the team created the “Pexel” shirt, which adds a touch of magic with lights that sync to the dancer’s muscles.

High-Tech Tutus:

Each tutu holds six LED strips. To reduce the weight on the tulle, the team linked the lights together with ultralight wire before gluing them in place.

  • Motion Sensors: A dancer’s every movement affects her core. “Even when the dancers are just kicking their legs out, they’re rotating the pelvis a little bit,” says Vermeer. Accelerometers and a gyroscope in the tutu’s waistband pick up this information and pass it to the processor.
  • Processor: A chip at the small of the back interprets the sensors’ data and then changes the speed of the light animation accordingly. The bigger the dancer’s movement or the faster her spin, the more the animation speeds up.

Pexel Shirt:

Mike “Supreme” Fields, who dances the role of Drosselmeyer, is a popping artist. When his pecs flex or his arms wave in the Pexel shirt, they provoke a response from the LEDs:

  • Muscle Sensors: Accelerometers over Fields’s pectoral muscles pick up flexing and trigger nearby LEDs. Gyroscopes in the cuffs measure orientation in space, signaling lights to flash up the arms in response to various wrist movements.
  • Fabric: The first Pexel shirt was too stretchy, Barr says: “Every time he moved, a soldered joint would go pop.” For Pexel 2.0, Barr placed a more rigid material over the electronics to support them. She also made a duct-tape mold of Fields’s torso to ensure the new shirt fit him perfectly.

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Popular Science. Videos shot by Dancing Camera, courtesy of Brooklyn Ballet.