The dynamics of dance: choreographer Blanca Li uses machines to dance

Choreographer Blanca Li. (photo credit: ALI MAHDAVI)
Choreographer Blanca Li.
(photo credit: ALI MAHDAVI)
Can robots replace humans? Will artificial intelligence replace human intelligence? Many experts say that by the year 2020, intelligent robots will take over from humans. In an article published in Forbes in April, Bernard Marr cites seven jobs that intelligent robots will take first: truck drivers, construction workers, legal support staff, medical professionals, accountants, report writers and salespeople. Nowhere was there any mention of robots taking the place of dancers.
But robots are the stars in Blanca Li’s Robot, a theater-dance show that opens in Israel on October 26, and often steal the show from the dancers. A combination of dance and multimedia, eight dancers share the stage with seven Nao robots, as well as with a mechanical orchestra.
For more than 20 years, Li has choreographed works for her company, as well as for film directors like Pedro Almodóvar (the flight attendant dance in I’m So Excited). And she has choreographed video clips for Beyonce and Coldplay among others, runway shows and fashion events for designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney and more.
Born in Granada, Spain, Li trained for the Spanish national gymnastics team from the age of 12. At 17 she moved to New York to study with Martha Graham. She also studied with others, among them Alvin Ailey and Paul Sanasardo. Witnessing the birth of hip hop, she was inspired to start her own flamenco rap duo and was quite successful.
Back in Madrid, she started her first company of dance with a work commissioned for the world exhibition in Seville, Expo ‘92. She moved to Paris in 1993 to start her own contemporary dance company.
In 2013, celebrating its 20th anniversary, Blanca Li Dance Company opened a new show, Robot, created in collaboration with Japanese artists Maywa Denki and Nao robots from Aldebaran Robotics. The work premiered at the Montpellier Danse festival.
Since then, the show has toured the world, getting rave reviews.
Blanca Li performs
Robot was created after three years of research and development. It is a dance that investigates the relationship between man and machine. An intelligent piece that is also very funny and moving, the show appeals to audiences of all ages, as well as dance enthusiasts.
“Never work with children or animals” is advice often given to performers. After seeing the show several months ago in London, I think we have to add ”...and robots.” The little toddler-like robots really steal the show. They have “personalities” - some are cute and whimsical, and others are sometimes evil. They wince and stare, they dance and fall over, and they make the skilled dancers next to them appear, well, a bit robot-like at times.
The choreographer says that she looked at many models of robots from other makers before deciding on Nao, a companion robot manufactured by French company Aldebaran Robotics, not least because they were so adorable.
“They are like small babies, and I found them very cute,” she says.
“They can talk, they can memorize your face and recognize you, and sometimes you forget that they are only machines.”
The mechanical music devices, made from household scraps, provide some of the music in the show, as well as sweet nostalgic moments. Created by the Japanese performance-art collective Maywa Denki, the machines play a score written mostly by composer Tao Gutiérrez.
The choreography contrasts the robots’ movement with that of the dancers’. The first time we see both together is in a moving pas de deux between a robot and a dancer. To the audience, this moment in which the robot is learning to walk, falling over again and again, seems more like a scene in which a parent is teaching a toddler to walk, than a dancer manipulating a machine. The robot blinks, watches the dancer, then raises his leg, leans forward and reaches out for a hug. Then, when his fellow robots join him, they dance in a surprisingly synchronized sequence and are mimicked by the dancers, dressed like old-fashioned robots.
The Nao robots keep falling over all the time, and the technicians, who are always standing in the wings, rush to their aid. To Li, exposing the technical difficulties represents our life, where we are so dependent on our smartphones and panic when they breakdown or when Wi-Fi is not available.
Li says that when she first thought of choreographing a dance with robots, she didn’t think it would be so complicated.
“My dancers work for very long hours every day, but the robots? They cannot function for more than an hour before they need charging or heat up or something. We needed a lot of patience waiting for them to get back to rehearsal. I didn’t expect that,” she laughs. “Of course we remember that they are robots, but we are a little bit attached to the little things,” she admits.
For Li, Robot is really a celebration of the human body.
“Think about it. We can jump and turn, our brain constantly readjusts so we don’t fall. I don’t think robots will ever learn how to do that.”
‘Robot’ will be performed on October 26 at 8 p.m.; October 27 at 1 p.m.; and October 28 at 4 p.m. at the Opera House in Tel Aviv.