At the age of 20 Garry ceased his university studies in Social Work to commence training to become a dancer. Following initial studies in ballet and contemporary dance in Sydney he trained at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne. Garry danced with a number of companies, including Australian Dance Theatre, Queensland Ballet and One Extra Company, before he began his career as a choreographer.
From 1990 – 1998 Garry was based in Sydney operating as a freelance choreographer making works on some of Australia’s notable contemporary dance companies, such as Chunky Move and Sydney Dance Company, as well as independent work presented at such venues as the Performance Space in Sydney. In this period he also created choreographies for most of Australia’s major tertiary dance training institutions – the Victorian College of the Arts, Queensland University of Technology, the Centre for Performing Arts and the University of Western Sydney.
Throughout the mid 1990’s Garry studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Communications at the University of Technology Sydney majoring in cultural theory and film, video and new media production.
In 1998 he set up the Sydney-based company Thwack!, creating two dance works: Plastic Space, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival and subsequently toured Australia; and the first stage of Birdbrain, a deconstruction of Swan Lake.
Housedance was Garry’s first project for ADT. Commissioned for the International Millennium Broadcast it was performed on the outside of the main sail of the Sydney Opera House on New Year’s Eve 1999 to an estimated television audience of two billion.
His first full-length work with ADT was the hugely successful Birdbrain which was performed to audiences totalling tens of thousands across four continents. Other works for the company include Plastic Space, Monstrosity (made for the Australian Festival for Young People), The Age of Unbeauty, Nothing, HELD, Devolution, G, Be Your Self, Worldhood, and Proximity.
In 2005 he co-produced Vocabulary with Kat Worth from Restless Dance Company, a dance company for young people with and without a disability. In this year he also choreographed the dance film Nascent with U.K. filmmaker Gina Czarnecki. Nascent has won numerous awards including the IMZ Dance Screen Delegates’ Award.
HELD, which premiered at the 2004 Adelaide Bank Festival of Arts, is a unique collaboration with renowned U.S. dance photographer Lois Greenfield. Winner of three Helpmann and three Australian Dance awards, HELD has toured the globe extensively, including a sell out season in Paris’ esteemed Theatre de la Ville.
Devolution won the 2006 Helpmann Award for Best New Australian Work. Garry’s ambitious collaboration with renowned Canadian robotics artist Louis-Philippe Demers has picked up seven other awards since its premiere and was critically acclaimed during its 2007 season at Theatre de la Ville (Paris).
Garry co-produced and directed the dance gala UNIFIED for UNICEF Australia in April, 2006 which raised funds for the Gap Youth Centre for indigenous young people outside of Alice Springs and an HIV/AIDS program for children in Laos. His work with director Nigel Jamieson on Honour Bound – a dance, film, theatre and aerial performance exploring the experiences of Terry Hicks and his son David who was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay – won the 2008 Australian Dance award for Outstanding Achievement in Choreography.
Garry’s extensive international reputation attracted significant support for his 2008 mainstage work, G – a deconstruction of the classic ballet Giselle. It was co-commissioned by The Joyce Theater’s Stephen and Cathy Weinroth Fund for New Work (New York), Southbank Centre (London) and Merrigong Theatre Co. at Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (Wollongong) and co-produced by Theatre de la Ville (Paris).
In 2010 Garry premiered Be Your Self at the Adelaide Festival. This work is a collaboration with renowned NYC architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Be Your Self toured throughout Europe between January and March, 2011. In March 2010 Garry also created a large-scale video installation work titled Collision Course with CM Films.
In 2011 Garry developed two works with ADT, Worldhood and Proximity. Worldhood featured live drawing by visual artist Thom Buchanan, and Adelaide College of the Arts dance students alongside ADT’s professional ensemble. The work explored the nexus between live drawing and dance in relation to structures in architecture and in nature.
Proximity premiered at the 2012 Adelaide Festival of Arts. The work is a collaboration between Garry and French video engineer Thomas Pachoud, to create a dialogue between dance and real-time video manipulation. Proximity will tour throughout Europe from January to March 2013.
Since 2007 Garry has been making new work for various international dance companies. As a guest international choreographer with Rambert Dance Company in 2007 he created Infinity. The work has now been seen throughout the U.K. In 2008 Garry was the International Artist in Residence for the inaugural International Dance Festival Birmingham in the U.K. During his time in the role he created a new work Magnification for Bare Bones Dance Company.
Following his work at the 2009 Sydney Festival for which he choreographed The Sydney which was performed by 300,000 people at the opening night event, Garry worked with the Royal New Zealand Ballet on a remount of an existing ADT work Currently Under Investigation. Later that year Garry returned Birmingham to create The Centre and its Opposite for the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Un-Blackfor the Ballet de l’Opera National du Rhin in France. In 2011 he choreographed Object for the Royal Flanders Ballet (Belgium) as well as a new version of The Rite of Spring for Ballet du Rhin.
In 2001 Garry was awarded a Centenary Medal from the Australian Government for his service to Australian society and dance. He has been awarded a number of fellowships and scholarships, including the biennial Sir Robert Helpmann Fellowship from the NSW Ministry for the Arts, which he used to study release technique at the Susan Klein School of Dance in New York and an Australia Council Fellowship to research dance and new media technologies. He has also been the recipient of two fellowships from the Australian Choreographic Centre in Canberra.
In 2011 Routledge Publishing included Garry’s biography in the revised edition of Fifty Contemporary Choreographers, which provides a unique guide to today’s most important dance-makers.
Adelaide’s Acclaimed and highly awarded Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) is seeking dancers for full time and/or contract positions with the company for 2007/08.
Calling for mature, charismatic professional dancers with a strong classical and contemporary training, ADT is ready to work on an amazing 07/08 program after the success of 2006’s Devolution.
Candidates must have considerable performance experience with exposure to other physical disciplines such as gymnastics, Ashtunga yoga and breakdance an advantage, but not essential.
Presenting 68 shows in 11 venues across 7 countries in 2004/2005, the company toured Europe last year and launched the world premiere season of Devolution, a work that has seen the company honoured with two Helpmann Awards and an Australian Dance Award!
Garry Strewart has developed many unique new works for ADT. These include Housedance, Birdbrain, the multi-award winning The Age of Unbeauty, Nothing, the unforgettable HELD and Devolution. Like Devolution, HELD too was an outstanding success in its debut season back in 2004 and has since won six national awards!
Formed in 1965, ADT undertakes groundbreaking and exciting choreography that challenges physical limits and audience perceptions. Works are fast, powerful, risky and technically strenuous, with amazing results.
This requires a team of dedicated and physically strong dancers with skills not developed by typical traditional training. Therefore dancers must be willing to learn a specific training program designed by the company that will teach them the particular skills required for Garry’s intense choreography.
Selected applicants will be invited to participate in a company class at a date to be negotiated. But please note that Australian Dance Theatre will not be considering any student dancers for the positions on offer.
Australian Dance Theatre, under the Artistic Direction of Garry Stewart since 1999, is the most sought after Australian contemporary dance company for international tours.
It may be hard to find just where our bodies begin, but we usually know where they end. When reaching out to touch the world we usually know how much of what we feel is us and where something else begins.
When something splits or peels or breaks off from our bodies, what was once a part of us becomes something else and strange. A little pile of toenail clippings, the hair that falls to the hairdresser’s floor, sunburnt skin that peels and flakes—such things are quickly swept away. We like to keep ourselves in order, to keep track of our body and its bits. We like to know that this is me and there is you and that is something else.
There’s something neat and nice-and-clean and civilised about this. But is it actually how we live? For we also like to be in touch with other bodies. We like to make connections face-to-face and hand-to-hand, skin-to-skin and mouth-to-mouth. In making contact and connecting, we feel part of something else. Our sense of who we are enlarges. Connected and entwined with others and other things, we become a couple or a cluster, a community or chorus. The feeling here is warm and close–but not so neat. It sometimes gets quite messy.
Dancers make contact with each other and the audience as they dance the choreography’s connections between bodies and their body parts. Sometimes dancers dance alone—but more often they don’t. They dance together, in and out of time and space, in touch and with connection. ‘To dance is human!’, the title of a book on dance announces in affirmation of the way that dancing makes us human by connecting us together.
So what to make of humans dancing with machines?
What do you say to your alarm clock when it wakes you in the morning? How do you feel about your car when you’re coaxing it to start? Do you love your new wide screen television and does it love you back? Do you treat your old computer with contempt? Or smile at your mobile phone when it retrieves an SMS? Do you blame the photocopier when it jams? Have you pressed the button more than once when waiting for a lift?
Our interactions with machines are plagued with aspirations and frustrations, with injuries and contagions. Video screens strain our eyes and computer keyboards spread RSI. Bodies crumple in car crashes and fingers jam in sliding doors. Little wonder we’re not always enamoured of machines. Sometimes we’re afraid of them. Sometimes we’re in awe. Yet we would not be who we are – which is to say, we could not do what we do – were it not for our connections with machines. We’ve learned to live with them, to love them. We simply could not live this way without them.
To dance with machines is to dance the ecology of our world.
This article explores the utility of actor-network theory for researching performance. Actor-networks are ensembles of bodies and objects, animate and inanimate, that ‘translate’ chains of action. For actor-network theorists–and, in this article, I draw primarily on the work of Bruno Latour–the world is composed of such actor-networks. Actors may be humans, machines, animals, plants, bodies, body-parts or objects; it is how they link together into networks of interaction that is of interest.
The term ‘translation’ is used in an engineering sense: actions are translated—that is, relayed or transferred—between the actors in a network. The theory foregrounds relation and connection, rather than difference and division. Actor-networks traverse distinctions between the human and the machine, the animate and the inert, the live and the mediated. As such, actor-network theory may yield new understandings of performance and technology in contemporary culture.
The focus of analysis is Devolution from Australian Dance Theatre. Created as a collaboration between choreographer Garry Stewart and robotics artist Louis-Philippe Demers, Devolution premiered at the 2006 Adelaide Festival and was subsequently presented at the Sydney Festival in 2007 and in Adelaide with a return season in August that year.
From an actor-network perspective, Devolution invites us to consider how humans and machines connect and interact. Its choreography explores how actions and affects are relayed, transferred or translated between humans and machines. Looking at the interactions between dancers and machines in performance, I saw a world envisioned on stage in which we may be no longer human—if being human means being masters at a distance, different and disconnected from all that we survey. As Latour explains, our feelings for machines are plagued with fearful fantasies of domination and submission:
Behind the tired repetition of the theme of the neutrality of ‘technologies-that-are-neithergood-nor-bad-but-will-be-what-man-makes-of-them’, or the theme, identical in its foundation, of ‘tech-nology-that-becomes-crazy-because-it-has-become-autonomous-and no-longer-has-any-other-end-except-its-goalless-development’, hides the fear of discovering this reality so new to modern man who has acquired the habit to dominate: there are no masters anymore—not even crazed technologies.
Devolution presents an opportunity within dance studies to consider the significance of humans dancing with machines. While the expressive semiotics of a foundational work like Judith Lynne Hanna’s To Dance is Human would tend to exclude from humanist comprehension the affective agency of machines in motion, a more recent study by Felicia McCarren reveals how metaphors of the machine informed the choreography and reception of modern dance.
In Dancing Machines, McCarren demonstrates how Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker, whose innovations in modern dance are associated with spiritualism, naturalism and primitivism, also partook of the early twentieth century’s cultural obsession with machines. McCarren’s approach is mostly metaphorical, focusing on “dancing that looks mechanical” and “dancing that emulates machine logic”. On the other hand, Steve Dixon’s research on human-machine interaction in contemporary performance is more pragmatic, although he also finds it necessary to triangulate connections between humans, machines and nature in his discussion.
Dancers Larissa McGowan, Daniel Jaber and Tim Ohl with machines designed by Louis-Philippe Demers in Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution, Adelaide 2006 Photo: Chris Herzfeld
The provocation for the dancers in Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution was how to dance not as machines, nor like machines, but with machines. By analysing the choreography of human-machine interaction in Devolution and attending to its critical commentary, this article seeks to draw out contradictions between an aspiration to articulate a ‘post-humanist’ kinaesthetic and a residual fondness for the human form in dance.
My interest in actor-network theory predates my encounter with Devolution. I first heard the phrase as a designation for an area of thinking and research in 2000, when I was working, not in theatre, drama or performance studies, but in the sociology of health education. Although, at that time, I did not know precisely what it meant, I liked the idea of a theory about actors and networks.
After six years of living and working with the internet, I was alive to the metaphorical potential and descriptive purchase of thinking through networks. I could picture the topology of a network—a social network of actors—as dots distributed in space with lines linking them in various ways. I assumed that this was what actor-network theory was about and I wondered whether the cultural studies of science and technology could generate new ideas about actors and the network of their relations.
So, when I began reading actor-network theory, I was surprised to discover that one of its leading researchers had written a book about the invention of a new system of public transportation. Bruno Latour’s (1996) Aramis, or The Love of Technology, reads somewhat like a detective novel, in which a student of engineering and his research supervisor, a professor of sociology, set out to discover who killed Aramis. Through analyses of documents and interviews with key players, the student and his professor explore why Aramis, an innovative, experimental research project to develop a new public transportation system, was abandoned after seventeen years of productive research, development and investment.
Dancer Larissa McGowan with machine appendage designed by Louis-Philippe Demers for Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution, Adelaide, 2006 Photo: Chris Herzfeld
It is an enthralling story and it reactivated in me long dormant interests in modelling transportation. Model train sets, sailing boats, model planes, racing cars, even a steam-driven cable car which ran up and down the hall at home had featured prominently in my boyhood learning about what makes things work. In reading Latour’s book on Aramis, I recalled and re-engaged an interest in things I had long forgotten—like the intricacy of what was once my interest in machines, in modelling their mechanisms, in interacting with their actions, in imaginatively entering their world-making.
Central to Latour’s project as a sociologist of science and technology is a re-evaluation of the human relation to machines. Specifically, Latour’s research and writing re-evaluates that conventional relation in which machines are so much technological matter, intently engineered yet mutely subservient in their laboursome expression of our human will. Latour envisages a more intimate, more intricate, more interactive relation with machines. This becomes evident in Latour’s book on Aramis when the research student expresses some concerns about his supervisor’s interactions with machines.
My mentor’s behavior worried me a little. […] he routinely thanked the automatic ticket machines at highway toll booths. He queried automatic tellers at banks about communication problems. He had long conversations with electric staplers. He noted the degree of politeness, laziness, violence, or nastiness of all the automatic door openers he came across, going so far as to tip them, which usually left them quite indifferent. He couldn’t buckle up a seat belt without looking into its stiffness, flexibility, or looseness, undoing the springs in order to see where that morality of webbing and clasps could be coming from.
Across a series of vignettes, technological contraptions are endowed with qualities, with affectivity and agency, that would exceed their rational apprehension as inert material objects. Other scholars have registered and explored the sociological implications of attributing human qualities and capacities to technological things. Some, for instance, express concern that in ‘fattening up’ nonhumans with human-like capacities, Latour may thereby ‘flatten out’ what is distinctly human.[[Eric Laurier and Chris Philo, ‘X-morphising: review essay of Bruno Latour’s Aramis, or the Love of
Technology’, Environment and Planning A, 31/6 (June 1999), 1047 – 71.]] And yet, at least in these vignettes, this does not seem to be the case.
The professor’s attributions of agency, intelligence, attitude and affectivity to technologies—to ticket machines and automatic tellers, door openers and speed humps, alarm clocks and food processors—do not thereby render him deficient in these qualities or somehow depleted as a human. To the contrary, I would say that as a character he becomes all the more endearing through his personable interaction and communication with machines. Rather, it is the diffident, stand-offish research student whose humanity is, if anything, diminished—or, in his words, ‘mortified’ because he fails to grasp the reason hotel keys have a moral purpose in their metallic weight.
The relation here between human and machine is one of connection and communion, although not one of convergence. Indeed a resistance to or reluctance to admit the theme of human-machine convergence is what distinguishes Latour’s approach to personifying his interaction with machines.
Mixing humans and machines
The interaction between humans and machines is pivotal in Devolution, although the way they mix together varies in the performance. In one mix, humans are surrounded by machines. The machines in Devolution enter from above the dancers or stand fixed to the spot behind the dancers. From above and from behind, the machines impose their physical presence on the dancers. The machines transfix the dancers to the floor, with cold white lights that stare, again from above and from behind. When it is quiet, we can hear the robots creak and breathe. But when Darrin Verhagen’s clunking, churning industrial score lends aural power to the machines, we hear bones-crushing and flesh-tearing. The dancers shrink and cower in fear. They spend much time on the floor.
Dancer Daniel Jaber with machines designed by Louis-Philippe Demers in Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution, Adelaide, 2006 Photo: Chris Herzfeld
In a second mix, humans act as hosts for mechanical parasites. The machines attach themselves as appendages that pulse upon the dancers’ bodies while their pistons push and shove. Talk of prosthesis is misleading. These attached machines are not in place of anything. They are a burden, when attached to dancers’ chests and backs. And when attached to dancers’ legs or arms, they all but incapacitate. In every case—on chests, on backs, on arms, on legs—we sense the dancers are beneath, a moving platform for mechanical acts.
“In a third mix, the performance delivers classic “man versus machine’. A solo man, naked and alone, lies on the stage, then slowly slides along. He stands, shudders, arches his back. Then he is surrounded by chattering, flashing, spider-machines, which converge upon him from both sides. Later on, this time in costume, he is again alone, face down, and being approached by the largest and most menacing machine. When it reaches him he shudders in its light, and looks up. His face is lit. He reaches up, grasps hold of it and is dragged across the space. We see his body pulled. He does little to resist. The machine stops, shakes and drops him to the floor. As a second big robot begins to enter, the man quietly slides away.
It was around this point that a woman in the audience, at the second performance I attended, yelled out “get on with the dancing”. Expressing a similar doubt about our capacity to comprehend the actions of machines as dance, Jill Sykes wrote of the machines in Devolution: “if you don’t find their flashing lights and clumping action very interesting, you are in for stretches of boredom”.
Yet whether the machines grab our interest, leave us bored, or fill us with terror, there can be little doubt about the capacity of machines to translate their actions into human affects. On the other hand, with its dancers surrounded, underneath and overwhelmed by machines, Devolution seemed less confident of our capacity to translate human affects into machines.
Zoomorphism as human-machine convergence
Many commentators have attended to the convergence of humans and machines as an aspect of our evolving future which conjures both fascination and fear. Surveying contemporary ‘metal performance’ for The Drama Review, Steve Dixon demonstrates how an impressive array of robotic and cyborgic performance art works from the last decade engage contemporary fascination with and fears about our relation to machines.
Dixon explains how two contrary force—”the increasing humanisation of machines” and “the gradual dehumanisation of humans in the face of technology”—are prompting an evolutional”. Dixon charts two routes to this convergence: “one via AI [Artificial Intelligence], building artificially intelligent, sentient beings; the other through cyborgism, adapting the human form to a supposedly ‘superior’ robotic and computational physiognomy”. Dixon also observes how, strangely, this evolutionary convergence of flesh and metal can invoke, in some performances and permutations, a return to nature and the natural world. ‘The contemporary human urge to return to the animal’, writes Dixon, “reflects a postmodern consciousness that senses a denaturing, a spiritual erosion, and a loss of the real in the face of technology”.
Dixon’s observations are astute. An appeal to nature, to the natural world and our animal nature was a key interpretation of the encounter between humans and technology in Devolution. Deploying a Darwinian rhetoric, an advertisement in the press advised that “Devolution creates an ecosystem populated with hybrids of flesh and metal struggling to co-exist” and explained how “Devolution highlights that for all our technology we are still primitive, of the flesh and live as instinctive biological beings”. A television advertisement, broadcast in the weeks prior to the premiere performance, confirmed this interpretation.
As opening night approached, Garry Stewart, artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre and leading choreographer of Devolution, reiterated the animalistic theme in interviews with journalists published in the press:
we’re trying to position humans more as creatures or animals – which is what we are. We think about ourselves as being separate from the animal world […] yet we are actually driven by very basic and primal instinctive forces. […] Devolution is about devolving or regressing back conceptually to the idea that we are instinctive biological creatures, rather than extraordinarily cultured beings that are separate from nature. 15 http://www.ripitup.com.au]]
Advertisements, interviews and previews are devices for enrolling prospective interests in a work; they are not interpretations of the work itself. To be precise, they translate unfinished fragments of the work into images and texts which are then offered up for recognition and appeal in anticipation of the work becoming real. Like a prospectus for a project, advertisements create a potential that the work may realise—or not; they are, however, merely fragments of the virtual that is being actualised through the work.
The animalistic potential of Devolution was most evidently realised in the costume design with the dancers dressed armadillo-like in layered leather skins by designer and taxidermist Georg Meyer-Wiel. It was also realised by Stewart and the dancers in a prominent kinesthetic orientation of the work:
by distorting the body away from an upright pedestrian orientation and challenging the Cartesian view of the body, I’ve been trying to posit humans as animals which of course we are.
The Cartesian view of the body, to which Stewart refers, posits a mind in control, located in a head above the body, with a face and eyes through which the ideas and intentions of the mind are expressed. By contrast, in Devolution, the dancers often move as if by feeling, without the aid of sight. With heads held down and faces turned away, they lose their sense of being human, becoming creature-like instead. What is it, though, about dancing with machines that prompted a return to nature?
In making Devolution’s choreography with the dancers and Louis-Philippe Demers’s robotics, Garry Stewart tried not to think of humans and machines as different species. Rather, Stewart explained that he was interested in the “collision and confluence” of the two—in how they make contact and connection, in how they flow together. 17 Around the same time, Demers articulated an operating principle designed to inhibit the appearance of anthropomorphism in the work: “The first thing is not to try to make the robot a dancer and to try not to make the dancer a robot. That’s rule number one”, explained Demers.
With Stewart’s interest in minimising species differences and Demers’s counter-anthropomorphic stance, Devolution’s kinaesthetic invocation of animal instincts may have emerged from the efforts of dancers interacting with machines, as an explanation of the challenges encountered in making the work. Situated between the human and the machine, the animal becomes the site of a convergence, where humans may become somewhat less than human and machines somewhat more than just machines. In Devolution, zoomorphism became a platform for collaboration and an encounter between choreographer and robotics-artist, between dancers and machines.
Humans and machines as actors
It has to be admitted that the animal upon which Devolution’s humans and machines converge is a metaphor. Unlike Saburo Teshigawara’s Green at the Melbourne Festival in 2005 in which humans were joined by rabbits, ducks, goats and cows on stage, there were no animals of a non-human kind in Devolution, only humans and machines. Consequently, the metaphor of creature convergence and a return to nature may reveal little about the actual interaction between Australian Dance Theatre’s dancers and Demers’ robots.
Latour’s ideas about actor-networks can shed light on the publicity discourse about the work. Devolution’s staging of human-machine relations may be related to our ‘modern constitution’ which, according to Latour, insists upon the separation of humans, society and culture from the natural world of things, objects and animals.
Dancer Paul Zivkovich with machine appendages designed by Louis-Philippe Demers for Australian Dance Theatre’s Devolution, Adelaide, 2006 Photo: Chris Herzfeld
In a book entitled We Have Never Been Modern, Latour calls this insistence “the work of purification”, a great division which seeks to sustain the separation of society and nature by rejecting—and thereby allowing to proliferate beyond its purview—all manner of hybrid actors, quasi-objects and quasi-subjects. 19 Beneath the work of purification in the impure spaces between society and nature, Latour identifies “the work of translation”, hybrid networks linking humans, artifacts, products, objects, animals, plants, nature into chains that proliferate, populate and translate between the twin poles of purity.
Devolution’s humans-dancing-with-machines may be viewed as hybrid actors, impure actor-networks, neither human nor machine. As such, Devolution foregrounds “the work of translation”, an assemblage of human-machine interactions which translate actions and affects across the human-machine divide through their connections and interactions.
Stewart’s discourse of co-words—collision, confluence, contact, connection and communion—inscribes an intention to investigate the relation between humans and machines. This intention was embedded in the project’s design and, as I’ve suggested, echoed in media reportage. A press release from the office of Mike Rann, the premier of South Australia and Minister for the Arts, announces Arts SA’s major commission grant for 2004. It explains that a new dance work, then called The Machine, will “place Australian Dance Theatre dancers on stage with large-scale robots” and that it will do this “to explore the communion between humans and machines”.
Further on, the press release indicates how a distinction between humans and machines is structured into the design of the project as “an international collaboration” (another co-word) between Australian Dance Theatre’s artistic director Garry Stewart and “a world leading expert—French Canadian robotics artist Louis-Philippe Demers”.
The discourse of ‘communion’ and ‘collaboration’ between humans and machines, dancers and robots, Stewart and Demers, was further translated by journalists with escalating excitement as the project proceeded:
Danger! Machines in motion. Robots have come out of the lab and off the factory floor to make their dance debut at this year’s Festival. […] Devolution is Australian Dance Theatre’s daring collaboration with French-Canadian robotics expert Louis-Philippe Demers. It pushes the fusion of human and mechanical performers to dazzling and potentially dangerous new levels.
The artists struggled to control—or, at least, to inflec—the discourse of “man versus machine”. One journalist reports that Stewart and Demers “have rejected the Hollywood cliché of ‘man versus machine’ with its vision of the tiny human dancer paling before the brutal machine”. Yet the first review announces that “[t]he conflict between humanity and technology looms large in Australian Dance Theatre’s Festival spectacular” and draws direct comparisons with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator movies and Hollywood’s recent remake of War of the Worlds (Burdon 2006).
Behind the scenes, the dancers were also struggling to control their choreographic interactions with the remote-controlled robots. Challenge, difficulty and danger characterise the process. “It’s hard”, said Larissa McGowan, rehearsing with a prosthetic-parasitic robot attached to her back. “It’s just more movement. I forget the chore[ography]”, she explained to Stewart, referring to the way her body absorbs the impulses of the robot as she moves; and a little later, “Ah, those fucking cables!”
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“A long way off”
Speaking in an interview, Stewart cautions how
t’s important to realise that while robotics is an incredibly precise and rapidly evolving technology, there’s still a long way to go. The robots from science fiction and virtual reality are a long way off! 30
A journalist explains,
Demers’s robots are not yet self-conscious or capable of autonomous reactions, so concern for the safety of the dancers has been paramount.
We can only speculate how those concerns would escalate were the robots capable of acting with autonomy. Yet even the most primitively dependent of technologies are readily endowed with the agency of misbehaviour—as in this little narrative from an interview with Stewart in which the fear of technological invasion is projected onto humans and a misbehaving object is excommunicated from the cast:
I mean there have been some dramas with the technology, like a transformer that kept on blowing up, and meant we were invaded by geeky and nerdy tech-heads for a few days but that’s sorted and everything’s behaving nicely now.
There is a contrast between the satisfaction of machines ‘behaving nicely’ in rehearsal, and the work’s more terrifying depictions in performance of humans surrounded and overwhelmed by machines. In rehearsal, the machines are enrolled to function as expected, according to the director’s will. In performance, the lasting image is of dancers whose humanity is overcome by the power of machines.
Yet the idea of actor-networks as assemblies mixing humans and machines moves beyond these alternating stories of machines enrolled by human will and humans overwhelmed by machines. In the book on Aramis, Latour writes about the challenges of technological innovation: “Innovations have to interest people and things at the same time”. To the task of ‘interesting’ and enrolling humans in a project, “you have to add”, Latour explains, “the task of interesting and attaching nonhumans”: “[t]hese aren’t two parallel series that could each be evaluated independently, but two mixed series”. The idea of actor-networks focuses on connection and relation, not on fantasies of contest and domination.
In this article, I have explored how humans and machines were mixed together in making Devolution. I have suggested that the mixing of humans and machines in series—rather than contest or a convergent return to nature—is the better metaphor for comprehending their interaction in the work. I have also indicated how the meanings of Devolution were forged not just in a communion between performer and spectator, but across a long chain of translation that relayed meanings through planning, rehearsal and publicity into production and performance.
Recalling what was once my boyhood interest in machines, the theory of actor-networks is good for understanding how things work—especially when that thing is made up of different parts that form a series, a set of connections and interactions linking bodies, objects, actions and affects. Devolution’s provocation to explore how humans could dance with machines envisioned how a hybrid kinaesthetic of human-machine interaction might work. Yet, for those who struggled to comprehend the actions of machines as dance, it also revealed a residual fondness for human interaction in the theatre and the purity of dancing’s declension of the human form.