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App by U of T Scarborough grads fuses technology and dance

William Mak (left) and Axel Villamil are U of T grads currently creating an app, called StageKeep, to help choreography benefit from the digital world. (Photo by Alexa Battler)

Choreography and technology will come together in a new app created by two U of T Scarborough alumni.

StageKeep, which currently runs out of The Hub, is an online app that tracks and measures space, movement and music. StageKeep aims to help dancers improve, collaborate, choreograph and envision performances digitally through wearable technology. Axel Villamil (BSc, 2017), CEO and founder, and William Mak (BSc, 2015), CTO, are working to release the beta edition for testing in the next month.

Villamil first had the idea for StageKeep while dancing with a U of T group, SC SWAG. He found one of the largest issues was scheduling. Group members that arrived late or had other commitments during practice made choreographing and practicing difficult.

“It was very hard to visualize where we were going. Especially as a dancer, it’s hard to picture five people in that formation if three of them aren’t even there,” Villamil says. “We don’t need actual people there anymore to figure out these formations, we can do this with an app.”

StageKeep will include a feature called Auto Algorithm, which calculates the size of a performance space and the number of dancers. The program also measures songs to find how much time exists between beats. The app then tells a choreographer how much space each dancer has, and how much time they have to complete a move.

The feature also intends to help production companies save money by reducing the time needed for physical rehearsals. Villamil and Mak have calculated that the need for psychical rehearsal space is cut down by 50 per cent when using the app. 

“If you’re in Toronto and I’m in Hong Kong, I can figure out if I’ve made an error on my choreography or formation and then I can correct it without being with the choreographer,” Villamil says. “I’ll know exactly what’s right because the application told me what’s right.” 

As a dancer, Villamil says he initially worried about the reaction he would receive trying to merge art and technology. He consulted many dancers and choreographers and says he was surprised when he was overwhelmingly told that performers would appreciate the app.

He says performers were encouraged by the idea of a technology telling them statistically how well they performed a routine, where they are making mistakes and how they can improve, rather than subjective, potentially misleading opinions from others.

“It’s really hard to figure out if you’re doing well versus people who are just digging you up and saying, ‘Oh, great job,’ when in reality, you didn’t do a great job,” says Villamil. “How can you grow from there?”

Motion tracking begins with a bracelet developed by Villamil and Mak. The wearable technology tracks a dancer or choreographer performing a routine. Bracelets then track how other dancers match the base routine. The app calculates statistics for a dancer’s accuracy, tracks their improvement over time and highlights moves they have difficulty with.

This, Villamil says, can also help remove subjectivity in hiring and training dancers. After a dancer performs a routine, statistics and notes are sent to a choreographer to help them select the best dancers. Villamil says this can also help dancers find work based on their skills, rather than who they know or how they appear on video.

 “We will figure out who’s hitting it perfectly, who’s hitting it right, who’s hitting it on time, versus what we think is on time,” Villamil says. “These statistics are what we’re trying to figure out for dancers to give them the fair and fighting chance for those performances that they deserve to get for their own skills.”

Villamil says this motion tracking can also help choreographers communicate their routines faster and more accurately than by writing them on paper.

Villamil and Mak hope eventually to move StageKeep to other fields in the performance industry. Villamil says the app can be applied to track and communicate how actors can move across a stage, or how a car can move on a film set.

“The hope for me with StageKeep is that one day it’s a recognized name within the industry,” Mak says. “The dream that I have with StageKeep is that people ask each other, ‘Do you have StageKeep?,’ and people reply, ‘Of course I do.’”

StageKeep runs out of The Hub. Villamil and Mak worked closely with the centre’s mentors - Gray Graffam, Donovan Dill and Luki Danu - to create their business model. 

“Through The Hub I learned how to write a proper business plan, how to understand what my market was, what my available market was, all the startup lingo,” Villamil says. “They gave us great tools.”

 Last February, they won $5,750 at The Hub’s Startup Competition, which is funded by Ontario Centres of Excellence, and the Office of the VP, Research.

“One of the truly exceptional recognitions about StageKeep is that they emerge with the space of dance choreography,” Graffam says. “There are not enough startups operating in that space within the ecosystem. It is extraordinary to have this team launching such a unique product.”




© University of Toronto Scarborough