Man, machine and the mystery of which is more mechanical
23rd February, 2006
GONE are the twirling aerial ropes that became something of a 1990s signature for Adelaide's Australian Dance Theatre. Enter the robots - towering, ambulatory, geometric structures that cross art deco with Lego, or smaller, silvery creatures that swarm across the stage with bunched spidery legs.
They perform as equal partners with the dance theatre at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in March, separately or strapped to the dancers' bodies like mutated insect prosthetics.
The dance theatre's artistic director, Garry Stewart, and his collaborator on Devolution, the French-Canadian Louis-Philippe Demers, have rejected the Hollywood cliche of "man versus machines", with its vision of the tiny human dancer paling before the brutal machine.
"Our dancers are quite violent," Stewart says. "Their vocabulary is the antithesis of that kind of beauty and lyricism, so, in many ways, the movement of the dancers has referenced the angularity and staccato rhythms of the machinery - not that I've got the dancers getting around onstage looking like machines. But we have tried to create a choreographic connection between the machinery and the dancers."
The band of robots built for this world-premiere season are in no way humanoid. "They are not becoming more like people. In fact, I don't see the point in this," Demers says. "I try to stick always to something that looks formal, abstract or geometrically based, but when they start moving, they become quite organic. It's like challenging a bit of the notion of the living and non-living organism."
Devolution is among the world's first collaborations between dancers and robots and is the culmination of an idea Stewart had when he saw Demers's robotics in Europe.
Demers, who has created more than 175 machines, is a freelance designer who specialises in machines as media. Based in Germany, he has staged numerous European installations and robot performances and, last year, did an operetta in Lille, mixing live music with abstract robotic angels and devils.
He has integrated a robot into a dance performance before, but never collaborated in work where robots and dancers move together. The software is complex and tedious to construct, yet the machines, at times, mimic the organic movement of humans.
Some of them are among the biggest Demers has had to construct and have enormous stage presence, moving precariously in a way that is intimidating.
"It's always recorded as a violent act," Demers says of the impact of a large or noisy machine. "When you start your blender at home, you always step aside. There is something about these objects - you anthropomorphise the action."
Instead of conflict and battle, Stewart has built a work around ecosystems, evolution and mutation and depicts his dancers as creatures, not unlike the machines. While the dancers become dehumanised, Demers's robots re-create biology through organic movement, narrowing the divide.
Stewart says the comparison is interesting and real: many people working in robotics see humans as incredibly complex machines operated by computers so wondrous they have simply created an illusion of consciousness that we define as human.
"They see it as just a degree of complexity," Stewart says. "So there is this interesting interplay between the simple technology of the robotics in the work, and the complexity of the human body as a machine."
Like Stewart, Demers, who has been working in Adelaide since December to build his robot ensemble, wants to suggest life as a mechanical construction as much as an organic one.
"The machines are so stereotyped, so loaded by science fiction, but these are really abstract, moving shapes," Demers says. "It's more like challenging the notion of what is life, rather than just saying 'man versus machine'."
Stewart, who says his dancers are passionate about working with the robots, is amazed at how simple machines can elicit such powerful emotions from an audience.
"As soon as we see these machines we register a veil of consciousness that obviously isn't there," he says. "Then, when you have the machines on stage in relation to fully fleshed human beings, this very strange tension and narrative takes place."
Devolution, Australian Dance Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre, Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival, March 3, 4, 5 and 7.