June 9 – June 14, 2015
In the music video for Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” choreographer and artist Blanca Li constructs a scene straight out of a fever dream. Female dancers wear retro swimsuits and prance like showgirls on an Ed Sullivan-style stage. Accompanying them are mummified dancers and people shaking in skeleton costumes. A polka-dot backdrop, which looks like a sheath of candy Dots or a Twister board, changes color with the beat of the music. This scene is wonky and odd and, in a way, delightful. It’s also four minutes long. Try extending the piece to an hour and a half, and you’ve reached nightmare territory.
Or perhaps you’ve wandered into the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House for a performance of ROBOT. Li first staged this work in France in 2013; its one-week run at BAM marks her New York theatrical debut. ROBOT is a full-length frenzy that features eight dancers, humanoid robots, and a mechanical orchestra. In it, Li is deft at weaving together dance styles: the show is laced with hip-hop, ballet, flamenco, and folk dancing. But in her attempt to cast her human dancers as robots, she strips ROBOT of its human elements.
The performance begins with a single Adonis standing at center stage. He remains still and stoic, nearly naked, as a low-pitched gurgle fills the theater. He looks like a test subject in a mad scientist’s lair. Then, a high-tech spotlight hits him, and the “experiment” begins. A projector beams digital renderings of a human body that precisely map onto the dancer. First, these flickering forms resemble a network of blood and veins; then, muscles and tendons. Then, they project wrought iron armor. The dancer does not move, but as the projected video proceeds, he seems to transform from a human to a robot.
When the dancers do move, they are stilted and spring-like. Their eyes rarely emote. Their touch is cold and rigid: they primarily push and pull one another, as if each others’ limbs were levers. In one moment, two dancers, both clad in nude undergarments, play out these robotic restrictions. They approach one another and lock their arms, which are outstretched like tuning forks. In the ensuing slow dance, they try to move closer to one another but find that they cannot do so without crooking their arms, a move that they refuse to make. Even when these characters seek intimacy, they cannot, within the context of the performance, satisfy these desires. This moment has the potential to be moving or even humorous. Instead, it is pedantic: the dancers are so concerned with imitating how robots move that they do not convey how moving like a robot can feel. As they scurry off the stage, the pair does not seem to register that there is an alternative to being alone.
There are, to be fair, moments when the dancers transcend the mechanical—namely, when they are dancing with toddler-sized, romper-wearing Nao robots. In the most compelling scene, the Adonis navigates the stage with one of the robots in a sort of father-son pas de deux. He grips the plastic hands of the pint-sized bot and guides him across the floor. He teaches him ballet’s five basic positions. He lets the robot shake its hips and scoops it up when it tumbles to the floor. The dancer is compassionate and subtle. He is patient. And he is more endearing and exciting to watch here than in any of the scenes where he is on stage primarily to prove his strength.
Where the show is emotionally empty, it is physically cluttered. In one scene, the dancers run staggered laps around the stage. As they pass behind a gauzy backdrop, their shadows dance alongside monstrous silhouettes of robots and what seems to be a military tank. Each figure competes for the audience’s attention, and it sometimes feels more natural to look away from the stage than to track any given element.
Li’s pacing heightens the show’s chaos. During one transition, the eight dancers emerge from the shadows clad in baby blue uniforms, as if they were diner employees straight out of Twin Peaks. They hasten through morning routines that include mimed tooth brushing, belt buckling, and breakfast snarfing. They perform office work at a lightning pace by taking imagined phone calls and flipping through non-existent papers. They socialize via group selfies and dance parties. Bright lights and a thumping bass accompany their manic movements. But even though the dancers remain light-footed, their fits and starts become heavy—a burden to watch. I wondered when these dancers’ batteries would run out. At last, one of Li’s dancers pantomimes a machine malfunction. He sputters for a few moments, then collapses on the stage.
(During the Sunday matinee that I attend, one of the compact, humanoid Nao robots flops over and vibrates on the floor, face-down, trying to dance the routine that it was programmed to perform. It soon stops moving entirely, much like the human dancer had done earlier in the performance. A technician promptly shuffles onto the stage and whisks away the robot, whose absence is only felt momentarily.)
Towards the end of the show the company congregates at center, everyone fixed to a neon wire that snakes up to the ceiling. As the dancers lope around the stage, their wires cross. The sequence seems to be a not-so-subtle reminder that even—perhaps especially—in a high-tech world, we are susceptible to “crossing wires” rather than listening to one another. But the scene does not explore and complicate the idea that people talk past each other. Instead, it ends where it began, with the dancers tied to slack ropes.
Perhaps the dancers are not meant to articulate emotional disconnect, disappointment, or even delight in ROBOT. Perhaps they are meant to be more like enduring tour guides through an industrial complex, or scavengers through a nettled landscape of wires and warehouse parts. Perhaps they are proof that humans must work especially hard to assert their humanity. Still, I crave a more thorough—not theatrical—meditation on the nature of humans living in an unnatural society. Li sets up countless opportunities to pursue both the tension and harmony between humans and machines. Instead, she executes a magician’s trick of making humans move like machines and robots move like humans.
At the show’s conclusion, the dancers construct a revolutionary barricade from the piles of sheet metal and plastic with which they have waltzed and shimmied. They depart, leaving the stage strewn with refuse. The mechanical orchestra reaches its final percussive whine. The lights fade. The curtain falls. At last, the theater is still.
ERICA GETTO is a writer based in Brooklyn.