We wanted to find something poetic with the drones, rather than functional.

On view through August at The Roundhouse in London, +/- Human is an innovative dance performance and immersive installation, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. During the performance, the dancers are joined by a “swarm” of spherical computer-programmed drones, who move and respond to patterns of movement.

Multi-award-winning British choreographer Wayne McGregor has been redefining contemporary arts for over two decades. The piece was produced in collaboration with Random International, the contemporary arts collective behind the immensely popular Rain Room exhibit.

The Innovation Group recently spoke with McGregor to discuss the inspiration for +/- Human and his interest in merging the disciplines of science, technology and dance.

What inspired +/- Human?

We have been doing a lot of AI and machine learning and working with algorithms for the last 14 years or so in different contexts, and I wanted to work with that intelligence in a different way to try and find a different relationship with technology and bodies.

When the Roundhouse asked me to do the project, I mentioned it to Random International, who we have worked with on many of these projects before, and they said they had already started to think about working with drones, so it was a bit of a synergy. I like the idea of having a performance that sometimes had human beings in it and sometimes didn’t.

When we think about drones, we always think about the negative connotations of them, or we think about these irritating noisy things, but we wanted to find something poetic with the drones rather than something that was functional.

+/- Human dance performance at the Roundhouse by Wayne McGregor. Credit to Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke

What can technology bring to the art form of dance?

Technology has always been embedded in dance. If you think about any innovators that have worked in dance, they have always used technology. They used the technology of the body to exploit or extend what bodies can do. We have always worked with algorithms in dance, setting rules and constraints.

We experience all of our technology through our bodies, through this amazing sense organ that we have. If you think about your iPad, for example, it’s an interactive technology that becomes an extended part of your senses. I am interested in working with technology that makes you feel differently in your own body. It is all about senses.

When you work with technology you open a whole new vista of possibility. I did the very first motion capture in the early 90’s, and way before Skype I did performances in Canada and Berlin remotely. I had an audience on both sides and I would go and switch the monitors on in Berlin and see dancers in Canada and choreograph them in real time. That was when the machines were as big as a room.

The motion capture stuff that we are doing on movies used to be really slow. You used to have these balls all over you and it took ages. Now you can do it in real time. The systems develop all the time, they are all physical systems, embodied systems. It is exciting to see what the body can do with them.

+/- Human dance performance at the Roundhouse by Wayne McGregor. Credit to Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke
+/- Human dance performance at the Roundhouse by Wayne McGregor. Credit to Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke

What interests you about the relationship between people and machine?  

The fact is, we cannot avoid the relationship between people and machine. What I have tried to do is produce contemporary choreography that is plugged into the real world. I try and pull resources from things that are around, alive and working now.

Many people say that the work is futuristic, but it’s kind of crazy because it is so present tense. It’s not a version of what it is going to be like in the future. It is technology which is happening all the time all around us. Think about some of the robots you see in factories now, moving in the most sophisticated ways.

Technology can improve or enhance what we are already doing. We have no problem exploring technology in relation to going to the moon or Mars or even remote surgery, but still we are really upset about certain other technologies like VR and pornography. We have weird limits about some but not others. We need to be in the conversation and listen to artists who are trying to make meaning from technology.

Do you feel that machines truly have personalities, or can demonstrate empathy?

It is about your system rather than their system. I had a Tamagotchi when I was younger and it’s weird how quickly you built a relationship with it. I think the question of “Is it alive or does it really have empathy?” isn’t important. Rather, it is the way you feel in relation to it. And if that works for you I think that’s totally fine.

As technology becomes more intelligent and it relates to you more directly, those new versions of empathy are going to be explored in different ways.

+/- Human dance performance at the Roundhouse by Wayne McGregor. Credit to Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke

What can AI and machines teach us about what it means to be human?

It can tell us about our limitations. In the food chain of animals, we, as humans, have decided that we are higher than a frog or a zebra fish because we have certain capacities. But the amazing thing about AI is that it can sift data at such a rate that we would never be able to do ourselves.

I think it is a good thing to know that we are not infallible and we can be extended and explored in different ways. In this age we are all generating so much data, think about those huge data sets that we present now on Twitter or Facebook. What do you do with that information? You need systems that help you understand it and help you create meaning from it, otherwise you are just overwhelmed. I am even overwhelmed with the amount of photos on my phone that I have not really logged properly, I need a way of developing a relationship with it.

AI can hold a mirror to us in the way that we think about things and offer us new alternatives of solving problems. In massive data sets I think it can provide insight immediately, in ways that would take us thousands of years.

What has been the reaction from your audiences been to the fact that the orbs seem to move with free will?

I think the audiences are really into it. Part of what we have been trying to do in terms of the narrative is explain to people that it is not me choreographing the orbs. It is not that direct; it is not that interesting to see cause and effect in such a linear way. I think once people understand that it is an intelligent system, that is thinking for itself and deciding whether it is attracted to someone or when it is going to go bully someone or surround someone, you watch it in a different way. That’s exciting.

People want to understand things quite quickly but what I like about the performance is that people go into the space and take time to figure it out. They don’t 100% know, which is ultimately the same as a human interaction. We make judgments all the time and that’s one of the beautiful things about how your life unfolds over time. I think what is interesting is knowing but not knowing at the same time.

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Wayne McGregor’s +/- Human

The Roundhouse, London

Zoological installation by Random International, open daily from 12 p.m. until August 28th.

Final dance performances by Company Wayne McGregor and dancers from The Royal Ballet, Friday August 25th and Saturday August 26th, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Music by Warp Records

www.roundhouse.org.uk