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The Non-Human Dances: thinking about the non-human in live dance performance.

Amy Cartwright

When we go to see a dance performance, more often than not, we expect to see a dancing body. Probably a human dancing body. What if we were to challenge this by asking: To what extent can a non-human body be introduced into a live performance and still be considered a dancer? This is essentially a question of agency or more specifically, performative agency.

Early Non-Human Performers

Non-human performers have been of interest for a long time. An early example is Yan Shih’s Automated man:

“The king stared at the figure in astonishment. It walked with rapid > strides, moving its head up and down, so that anyone would have taken > it for a live human being. The artificer touched its chin, and it > began singing, perfectly in tune. He touched its hand, and it began > posturing, keeping perfect time... As the performance was drawing to > an end, the robot winked its eye and made advances to the ladies in > attendance, whereupon the king became incensed and would have had Yen > Shih executed on the spot had not the latter, in mortal fear, > instantly taken the robot to pieces to let him see what it really was. > And, indeed, it turned out to be only a construction of leather, wood, > glue and lacquer, variously colored white, black, red and blue. > Examining it closely, the king found all the internal organs > complete—liver, gall, heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, stomach and > intestines; and over these again, muscles, bones and limbs with their > joints, skin, teeth and hair, all of them artificial... The king > tried the effect of taking away the heart, and found that the mouth > could no longer speak; he took away the liver and the eyes could no > longer see; he took away the kidneys and the legs lost their power of > locomotion. The king was delighted.” ^[1]^

  1. The Shorter Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham and Colin A. Ronan, page 92.

The original version of this translated text comes from the Liezi, a Chinese Daoist text believed to have been written as early as 4th Century BC. While there is no proof that Yen Shih’s Automated Man is anything more than a hypothetical or a myth, the mere fact that this artefact was written about at the time proves a very early interest in non-human performers.

Automata that bear some resemblance to the description of Shih’s Automated Man became very popular in the 17th Century. Vaucanson’s ‘The Flute Player’ (1737) and Jaquet Droz’s trio: ‘The Musician’, ‘The Draughtsman’ and ‘The Writer’ (1768 - 1774) were all made to look and act like humans. They were also all (even if they were not made explicitly for this purpose) exhibited to provide entertainment for the public. These particular humanoid automata are able to perform without assistance. Their performance capabilities are limited, but they are still some of the earliest examples of non-human bodies performing in a live setting and they serve a valuable purpose in helping us to understand how a non-human might fit into a live performance.

The Non-Human in Dance

While the creators of these automata strived to make their creations as close to the human image as possible, there are choreographers who use the human body to represent something far from human. The human body is presented in such a way that it loses its humanity, dancers being represented as something non-human or the human body being disguised as something else. In Damien Jalet’s ‘Vessel’ (2016) the audience never see the heads of the semi naked dancers. By concealing the heads and entangling the bodies into unnatural and unidentifiable positions, Jalet is presenting the human body as something that is not recognisable as human.

French choreographer, Eric Minh Cuong Castaing presents a warped perception of humanity in his piece ‘School of Moon’ (2016). It features highly intelligent humanoid robots that share the stage with human dancers and children. The robots move like humans, simulating the motions and appearing almost childlike in their attempts.

For the 2013 piece, ‘Atomos’, choreographer Wayne McGregor worked alongside programmers Marc Downie and Nick Rothwell. The result of this collaboration was ‘Becoming’ (2013). Becoming was the eleventh dancer in the rehearsal studio, a large human sized screen which hosted an abstracted virtual body whose task was to replicate the human motion that it observed from a 1980’s sci-fi film. The dancers worked alongside Becoming in creating the work and used the abstract movement patterns created by this eleventh dancer to influence their own movement choices. Although it does not feature as a dancer in the piece, McGregor credits Becoming as a co-creator of Atomos.

The Non-Human Dances

McGregor works with an abstracted non-human dancer but he does not bring this dancer into the performance space, choosing rather to use it as a choreographic tool. Castaing, however does bring his non-human dancers into the performance space but chooses to emphasise the humanity existent within the robots by having them mimic human movement qualities.

‘The Non-Human Dances’ is an ongoing research project that is comprised of a series of live performances that each feature abstracted, non-human dancers. The aim of this series is to examine the possibilities around working with a more fluid perception of the dancing body in live performance. Moving away from the human shape into a more abstracted form. Further questioning what agency can be afforded to these non-human dancers in live performance.

The first piece created for this series, ‘Dancers in White, Standing’ (2017) brings three robotic dancers together on stage with a human dancer. The robotic dancers have a physical structure and movement capabilities similar to that of an industrial robotic arm. All of the dancers, both human and non-human, follow the same improvisational score. They also all listen and respond to the music and most importantly they watch each other. The non-human dancers respond to the movements of the human dancer while in turn the human dancer responds to the movements of the non-human. A choreographic feedback loop.

Dancers in White Standing – 2018

Photograph: Howard Melnyczuk

The next and most current piece in the series is ‘Audrey’ (2018) (named after Audrey Munson who modeled for and subsequently gave agency to many of the marble statues in New York). Audrey is a duet which features a robotic dancer alongside a human dancer. As with the previous piece the robotic dancer is an abstracted body that has movement capabilities outside the capabilities of the human body. In this piece the human dancer is responding in real time to a video showing several short dance clips. The non-human dancer then in turn responds to the human dancer. This creates increasing levels of abstraction of the movement data. In the video the data is in its purest form, the improvising dancer manipulates that data and in turn the non-human manipulates it further. Almost like a choreographic game of Chinese Whispers.

In both of these works the interest stems from the abstraction of the human body. By presenting dancers that have movement capabilities that differ from that of the human body we are allowing for a broader scope of movement possibilities. The robotic dancers cannot move as the human does and vice versa. This abstraction does however highlight the most difficult question, which is that of agency. It is much easier for us to afford performative agency to humanoid robots, as we see in them something that we recognise and can relate to. All of the works in this series will strive to afford this same agency to abstracted non-human bodies.

This research series is not aiming to challenge the nature of dance and there is no intent to replace the human dancer or invade the domain of the human dancer in performance. Rather it explores the possibilities around a more fluid sense of the performing body. Creating new space within live performances where non-human bodies are accepted. A space that includes abstracted non-human forms both in a digital and physical sense. If we think back to Yan Shih’s Automated Man we can clearly see that there has always been space for the idea of non-human performers, is it possible to take that one step further and give them actual physical space within live dance performance?