NAO: Ange © Laurent Philippe

A NAO robot and a human dance in Blanca Li’s ‘ROBOT’ at BAM (all photos © Laurent Philippe)

This is the year of the robot, starting with the movie Ex Machina and filtering down to the performing arts, which have seen a spate of humans dancing with robots in touching pas de deux. Spanish choreographer/dancer/filmmaker Blanca Li’s ROBOT, a 90-minute extravaganza at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, included seven dancing robots, eight humans, and a ten-member mechanical orchestra — or “product demonstration,” from Japanese design firm Maywa Denki. Li, a force to be reckoned with for her single-minded determination to incorporate new technologies into the performing arts, has made music videos for Daft Punk, fashion videos for Beyoncé, dances for films by Pedro Almodóvar, runway shows for Jean Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney, and commissions for the Paris Opera Ballet and Metropolitan Opera. She also used to throw her own wild, DIY, extemporaneous parties (think Rubelad) and knows how to choreograph chaos. Though Robots lacked the utter grace of Taiwanese choreographer’s Huang Yi’s performance with the robot arm Kuka earlier this year at 3LD Art and Technology Center, it made up for it with poignancy and tenderness by highlighting the little toddler-like Nao robots from Aldebaran Robotics.

Projection-mapped body (click to enlarge)

Projection-mapped body (click to enlarge)

I experienced ROBOT during the children’s afternoon matinee, an endurance test for both the pint-sized critics and their caretakers. The play-date set added such sanguine comments as, “Is that the robot, mommy?” and rained heartfelt oohs and aahs of empathy upon little Nao when it tumbled face down onto the floor. In one sense, it was the perfect audience, because they will grow up to become generation R, or the first fully imbibed, robot-companion-savvy generation. Li echoes this, writing in the program, “Robots could be lovable and endearing companions … part of our everyday life.”

The performance began with a human body projection-mapped to reveal its anatomical innards, followed by a stylized visual history of automation, including a quick and sly reference to the circular waves of electrical current that surrounded Fritz Lang’s Maria robot from the 1927 movie Metropolis. The initial choreography displayed dexterous dancers in flesh-colored skivvies accompanied by the sound of a beating heart valve. The first musical robot appeared playing a very noisy mechanical accordion, with conga lines of electronic machine soloists — made by Maywa Denki — emerging to strut their stuff. The dancers donned industrial maintenance worker clothes and increased the tempo of their movements to keep pace with the choppy, mechanized beat.

From Left to Right Musical instruments by Maywa Denki, with dancers (left to right) Alisahka Hilsum, Margalida Riera Roig, Gael Rougegrez, Yann Hervé, and Emilie Camacho© Laurent Philippe

From Left to Right
Musical instruments by Maywa Denki, with dancers (left to right) Alisahka Hilsum, Margalida Riera Roig, Gael Rougegrez, Yann Hervé, and Emilie Camacho© Laurent Philippe

The first little Nao robot rolled out of a box with the awkwardness of an infant learning to walk. Li choreographed real tenderness between human and machine, as the former taught the latter to dance to the sound of the alphabet song on the xylophone. Four more Naos emerged from suitcase trunks, fell down, and righted themselves as the music changed to emulate the 1980s British synthpop group the Art of Noise. The dancers traded up their industrial suits for white-collar fashion statements, and a Miss Piggy robot wannabe mouthed a solo of “Besame Mucho” surrounded by a bevy of human chicas. This morphed into a West Indian carnival kitsch experience, an obvious crowd-pleaser that lacked thematic consistency but was well-loved by the milk-and-cookies set.

West Indian carnival type experience - copy right Laurent Phillipe

West Indian carnival–type experience during ‘ROBOT’

The most powerful choreographed section came when deranged wires tangled the performers together. The force of the dancers — especially the masterful, Cuban-trained Yacnoy Abreu Alfonso and Japanese performer Yui Sugano, with her pretzel contortions — should have led to a much longer exploration of their abilities and talents; instead, they played second fiddle to the adorable robots. Still, the humans did reappear to close the show, once again in flesh-colored skivvies — a choreographic statement privileging body and bone over resistors and wire. The final projected images of circuit boards, and of course robots, contrasted with the detritus of broken technology strewn about onstage. Tellingly, it was all cleaned up by a Roomba willy-nilly, oblivious of anything blocking its robot way but the settled dust.


Dancers liberated from their wires

ROBOT, a show by Blanca Li was performed June 9–14 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (30 Lafayette Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

Ellen Pearlman

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.