‘Dancing’ robots a highlight at this year’s Hong Kong International Arts Carnival

Machines interact with human dancers in a multimedia show designed to reflect the evolution of technology

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 July, 2016, 7:54pm

In choreographer Blanca Li’s Robot, a highlight of this year’s Hong Kong International Arts Carnival, the seven robots featured in the multimedia dance show are not there just to impress but to move the audience.

“I want robots and machines to [convey] emotions,” says the 52-year-old artistic director of Blanca Li Dance Company. “I want robots to melt the audience’s hearts and have people think about these emotions and what provoked them.”

To achieve that, Li incorporates meaningful human bodily movements into the robotic gestures, from arms reaching out for a hug to head hanging low, to create that emotional connection. And she doesn’t have to look far for ideas. “My life in general is my inspiration. I look around myself a lot to find ideas and sources of inspiration,” she says.

Created by Li between 2010 and 2013, the production teams the “NAO robots” by Aldebaran Robotics with eight professional dancers. It also features music from the quirky Japanese art group Maywa Denki. While the robots imitate how we move, the choreography for the live performers references robotic and mechanistic movements, and the evolution of technology.

“Robots are incredible; they are becoming more and more capable,” explains Li. “I was very interested in having some of them share the stage with human dancers because I wanted to see how humans and machines would interact in the show.

“Also, the world is changing a lot because of this technological revolution based on artificial intelligence and I wanted to talk about how men and the machines will evolve living together and sharing everyday life.”

It took Li three years to fully realise her concept of the show on stage because it involved a large amount of research. “It took a long time to do all the programming, to create music for the automats to play and put together dancers, robots and musical machines which were to perform in a show that could be touring the world,” she says.

According to Thomas Pachoud, an audiovisual and special numerical effects engineer in charge of robots for this show, the robots – which stand 58cm tall – are created to be obedient and, therefore, below their potential and capability.

He says the robots only need to “know their part in the show, remember their choreography ... and give some emotions, that’s all [they] need to know to make the show.

“But for sure we can programme them to do completely different things, like telling stories, helping people, or being your friend,” adds the 32-year-old, “as long as we can be friends with a robot.”

Li met Japanese “art unit” Maywa Denki when looking for inspiration for the show in Japan and was taken by their “nonsense musical automatons”, which she describes as “incredibly beautiful objects”. “I love them because they provoke emotions and very strong reactions”.

The Spanish-born, Paris-based choreographer hopes her show reflects the fact we are now living in a world where everyone is connected by technology.

“Technology is now absolutely everywhere,” she says. “It offers new possibilities of expression and new means of expression for artists. I think artists today have a completely new range of expression available through technology, and we have to be able to take advantage of it and use it to create new works of art.”

Kwai Tsing Theatre Auditorium, August 5-8, Runs for 1 hour and 20 mins approximately, HK$200 – 320, HK$140 (restricted view)