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'Fusion' at Oper Leipzig is a ballet performance that blends tech and art

Artificial intelligence artist and composer Harry Yeff discusses his composition Fusion, the world’s first AI ballet at Leipzig Opera House.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Aug 09, 2023

Oper Leipzig recently showcased Fusion, a ballet production that blended together art and technology in order to create an experience that is truly unique. Fusion was performed by the Germany-based Leipzig Ballet and co-directed and composed by AI artist and musician Harry Yeff, better known as Reeps100. As such, it was the world’s first ballet production activating AI art in every aspect of its design and choreography, and necessitating viewing as a bold step towards greater integration between human artists and their emergent AI counterparts.

Yeff, mid-performance, Harry Yeff | STIRworld
Harry Yeff, mid-performance Image: Oper Leipzig, Courtesy of Harry Yeff

Yeff, the British artist at the centre of the project, was thrilled at how the art performance came together, and remarked, “I started with nothing. Both my parents were on benefits and I grew up on a council estate in Walthamstow. I could never have guessed where I would end up eventually.” He went on to discuss his creative journey, telling STIR that he got his start in music and voice in a rather unlikely way: he was a part of the early grime, IDM and Dubstep movements in London. He said, “As a beatboxer playing with DJs, my influences were never hip-hop. Rather, it was producers like DMZ and Aphex Twin that drove me to explore the extreme ends of what a beatboxer was and what a voice can do. I became a double national champion, judged every major competition on the planet, amassed over 100 million views, and then stepped away from it all in search of something more.” For the composer and artist, eschewing the music world in order to seek out a deeper connection between the human voice and tech became a preoccupation that has borne great fruit, and has eventually led to the conception and execution of Fusion, which garnered acclaim for its startling originality.

The backdrop responds to Harry Yeff’s vocals during a ballet performance, 2023 Video: Oper Leipzig, Courtesy of Harry Yeff

Despite stepping away from the music world, the artist’s extreme, machine-like vocal control earned him the attention of a number of voice academics including Sophie Scott, who is head of the Speech Communication Group at UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. This led to Yeff taking up a number of guest lecturer roles at Harvard University, which is where he realised that the marriage of voice and tech presented a unique enquiry as an artist. Since then, he has joined the EAT (Experiments in Art and Technology) programme at Bell Labs, and Fusion was a part of his ongoing efforts to curate, compose and direct, with a focus on finding new relationships between voice and tech by way of new media art.

A clip from a performance of Fusion, 2023 Video: Oper Leipzig, Courtesy of Harry Yeff

The project springs from a sublime musical composition by Yeff, who is joined by Gadi Sassoon, the associate composer, along with the acclaimed classical music composer Teddy Riley. Dramaturge Thilo Reinhardt also joined the group, which has been hard at work since 2020, trying to create a compellingly eclectic fusion that is both traditional and experimental. Yeff’s composition brings his inimitable beatbox technique to the fore, combining it with synthetic voices, classical compositions, and electronic music as well.

Leipzig International Ballet #1, Harry Yeff | STIRworld
Leipzig International Ballet #1, Harry Yeff Image: Ida Zenna, Courtesy of Oper Leipzig

The narrative of the project explored the relationship between humanity, artificial intelligence and nature, taking cues from Plato's Divided Self, which Yeff discussed, telling STIR “(Plato’s Divided Self) explores a mythological concept that the original human being had four arms and four legs. As a punishment, these beings were split in half, leaving the modern human always feeling half-complete, which in turn led to the driving forces of love and companionship. Fusion is a journey of humanity, technology, and nature trying, and in some ways, failing to always find that togetherness. The parts attempting to come together is a motif present throughout the work.”

Leipzig International Ballet #2, Harry Yeff | STIRworld
Leipzig International Ballet #2, Harry Yeff Image: Ida Zenna, Courtesy of Oper Leipzig

The speech artist has spent the last five years working with AI as a driver of ideation and creation of synthetic voice and digital art. He is well aware of the discourse surrounding the displacement that this particular facet of tech could potentially lead to in the art world, and speaks to it with a measure of hope and optimism. Yeff discussed his vision for the future of tech and art, saying “Yes, many creative practices will be disrupted, but new workflows will fractal out of this very powerful intelligence renaissance. These systems are mentors, collaborators, and opponents that have the capacity to go further than ever before. If you have a vision of value, you will have the advantage.” While he acknowledges that regulation and consent are key, he also believes that all will be for the best and that increasingly, creatives will need to develop novel datasets to drive AI. In his own words, “I call this the second self: your intimate and testing AI counterpart.”

Yeff performs with his AI digital twin Video: Oper Leipzig, Courtesy of Harry Yeff

Beyond Fusion, Yeff looks forward to deepening his relationship with AI even further. He told STIR that he will continue to approach it within his artistic practice the same way it is being applied in game theory and chess. He says, “Artificial intelligence challenges me and lets me see and learn things about my art that that only this technology could allow.” To the artist, his tryst with technology is a spiritual calling of sorts.

Profile picture, Harry Yeff | STIRworld
Profile picture, Harry Yeff Image: Oper Leipzig, Courtesy of Harry Yeff

Yeff, being a multidisciplinary artist driven to challenge himself continuously, has already undergone rigorous vocal training with an AI phantom of his voice, which has resulted in him acquiring new techniques, along with speeds that are scarcely human. He tells STIR, “I spent over 100 hours speaking and performing with these systems, and I will continue to do so. My voice is a living, breathing human and machine augmentation.” He is highly respected within the art, music, and now tech worlds, and along with his personal practice, is also curating and framing the future of techart for entities such as the UN. Yeff ends his interview with STIR, with these parting words: “I will keep exploring art with the aim of helping the world to better understand the present and possible future of our augmentation with tech. There is a lot to be cautious about, but I can guarantee that we are about to experience a new tier of artistic expression, and that is something I am excited to behold.”

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