What is it to be human? The question hovers in the air around every puppet, doll, automaton or robot like a flutter of doubt. If these imitations of life remind us of life itself – then what is that, and who are we? Our fascination with moving models and clockwork toys is wrapped around just such a kernel of mystery. That uncertainty, that vacillation – as emotional as it is physical or perceptual – between animated objects and animate subjects, is put firmly centre stage at the beginning of Robots, an ambitious 90-minute work by Spanish-born choreographer Blanca Li. On a darkened stage, a human form stands stock still as a montage of moving images is projected onto his body: pulsing circuits, pulsating organs, watchmaker mechanisms, barcodes, gameboy screens, abstract geometries, superhero costumes. Solid materials, intangible systems and dreamlike fantasies are – the scene seems to suggest – such stuff as we are made of. As are robots. As is, of course, Robots too.
It’s a potent set-up, but what follows is more an assemblage of animated parts than a piece that comes to life as a whole. First up is an extended sequence with eight dancers mechanically acting out everyday activities: brushing teeth, chopping food, criss-crossing the stage like rush-hour pedestrians. It certainly illustrates the idea that human actions are programmed, but it’s routine stuff, choreographically as well as thematically. More intriguingly, an automaton band (built by Japanese art collective Maywa Denki) is wheeled out: eccentric contraptions made of lampshades, bellows, drums, pipes and whistles that provide the whirring, whizz-bang soundtrack for the rest of the piece. They’re a captivating, cacophonous bunch, but again their robotic relentlessness – banging on, you might say – yields diminishing returns.
The audience dies of cute-attack
Then, though, we come to the heart of the piece – a little place of wonder and mystery that tugs the imagination. Dancer Gaël Rougegrez opens a box and out steps a small plastic figure in a baby blue jumpsuit. It looks around. It blinks inquisitively with electric eyes. It takes some tentative steps onto the stage. It is so cute! Everyone falls for it immediately. It is a NAO robot (a product of Aldebaran Robotics), and it is amazing. It “learns” some dance moves from Rougegrez: a careful port de bras, a plié, a lunge and a lean. Adorable! It unfolds one leg into a high developpé – and stays on balance! Rougegrez, rapt as the most solicitous of dance partners, then does a whole floaty pas de deux with it and it gives his neck a little cuddle. En masse, the audience dies of cute-attack.
There’s more to come. NAO number one is joined by four others, and they dance routines together that, no matter how choreographically restricted they of necessity are, look amazing simply because they are doing it. Sometimes they fall over, but this only serves to astound further because they can – slowly and shakily as first-time toddlers – get up again on their own. And of course when they do, the crowd is with them more than ever.
From then on, the evening becomes what feels like a series of sideshows and novelty acts – entertaining, undoubtedly, but fleeting in effect. Two further scenes featuring NAO are played for obvious innuendo: in one, the NAO is a tinselly nightclub chanteuse singing Besame Mucho; in the other it’s a bodybuilder doing callisthenics, inducing squeals from a simpering female dancer. There’s a bracing sequence to samba rhythms when the dancers finally get to show off everything that they can do and robots can’t: spinning and somersaulting, sliding and soaring – all the miracles of co-ordination, timing and breathing that make human beings the real marvel and robots the pale imitation. But the scene doesn’t follow through; instead, it’s immediately supplanted by another samba-driven number that dulls rather than buffs its shine.
The piece ends with everything going at once: dancers, NAO, music machines and all. It makes for a gratifyingly raucous, hammer-and-tongs finale – and leaves a curiously hollow aftertaste. It’s as if the deep fascination that always hovers around robots has been hedged in favour of fun and frolics: robots as playthings, automata as toys. For sure, it’s human to enjoy entertainment; but it’s also human to crave something more.