Winter Mix: Brandon Ramey

Our Winter Mix program features the debut of Brandon Ramey’s CAPTCHA. In preparation for the premiere, we sat down with the professional company dancer / choreographer to discuss the idea that humans are more unique in “how we do” rather than “what we do.” To catch Brandon’s piece entitled CAPTCHA, join us starting February 26th at 7:30pm CST.

Our Choreographer Q&A with Brandon Ramey:

You chose the word CAPTCHA as the name of your piece. Why?

We’ve probably all stared at those squiggly lines mixed with letters that some websites have as part of their login screens, trying desperately to prove our own humanity. Those are called “CAPTCHA.” CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.”

This whole piece was inspired by what appears to be a painting of Michael Donahue eating a donut. Upon further investigation I discovered that it was not in fact a painting, but a photograph that had been manipulated to appear like an oil painting, using a smartphone app. Though I’m not a painter, I still consider myself an artist. I was shocked and bothered at how easily I was fooled by this algorithmic forgery. I did some more research and discovered that the same thing was being done with music. I decided it would be interesting to create a piece that frames itself as a musical CAPTCHA for the audience.

What do you hope to portray to the audience with CAPTCHA?

Technology has revolutionized the way we relate with each other, but it’s not all selfies and hashtags. Sometimes I’ll see people on my neighborhood app saying terrible things that I know they wouldn’t say to each others’ faces. Something about these automatic platforms can make us forget our common decency. Instead, I want to portray how good we can be to one another.

How do you use music and movement to express humanity in a largely automated world?

I’m cultivating individuality in the dancers. When I write my signature the content, “Brandon Ramey,” is known by anyone who knows my name. It’s how I write it that makes it unique. It’s completely the opposite of our 21st century passwords. Anyone could log into my computer accounts if they know my passwords, who or how a password is typed makes no difference. I’m asking the dancers to create dance “signatures” instead of dance “passwords.” The choreographic content may be the same, but each person’s unique approach is encouraged.

Brandon Ramey, Choreographer
I want the audience to leave feeling reinvigorated towards uniquely human traits: creativity, empathy, compassion, and love.

How did you go about selecting the music and contemporary style of dance for your piece?

In researching automation I found David Cope, an American author, composer, scientist, and former professor of music at University of CA Santa Cruz. He developed a computer composition program that he named Emily Howell. Emily evaluates classical music for patterns and style and then creates new compositions in the style of long-dead composers. I was totally creeped out, but intrigued. I decided to pair her forgeries against the real thing and see if the audience could tell the difference. As an artist, I’m rooting for them –if we can automate the composers without anyone noticing, how long before they come for the dancers?

What was it like playing the role of choreographer rather than company dancer?

It's truly a privilege. The dancers of Ballet Memphis are incredible artists and they have devoted themselves so whole heartedly to the creative process. I couldn’t be more grateful to them. Although this is my first mainstage work for Ballet Memphis, it's not my first time choreographing. I've been able to gradually work up to this level through many student choreographies, a series of quarantine dances I did with my wife, Virginia, and last year’s dance film with Ballet Memphis, Overview Effect. It’s always nerve-wracking starting something new, but working with such incredible artists makes it worth it!