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(c) Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke

Wayne MacGregor’s +/- Human: An Interview

15 August 2017 Will Rathbone

+/- Human is an installation-performance hybrid at Camden’s Roundhouse that encompasses a wide range of sociological questions about human identity, and how we perceive each other in an age of artificial intelligence and advanced computers. Choreographer Wayne McGregor and the two co-founders of experimental art studio Random International – Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch – took part in a Q+A with social psychologist and broadcaster Aleks Krotoski to discuss the work.

+/- Human consists of two key elements – the dancers of Studio Wayne McGregor and The Royal Ballet, and seven large white orbs that glide and hover in the air above them. The dancers perform individually, and come together to form pairs or trios throughout the 50-minute long performance. The movements are fluid, and every dancer is powerful and graceful. As they dance, the orbs move around similarly. One moment they glide in individual orbits, the next they come together to form a pack, moving as one across the space.
 
McGregor began conceptualising the piece simply by looking at “the amazing space that is the Roundhouse”. The central hub of the North London multi-arts centre is rarely seen in such stripped back form. Tall, cathedral-like arches circle the performance area, with the audience standing around the perimeter. It is a lot taller than it is wide, and McGregor explains he has always been “fascinated by bodies in space. This was a chance to inhabit a space that wasn’t bound by gravity”.


+/- Human © Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke
 
The performance is captivating to watch, but it is difficult to make out a clear narrative structure. There are moments of interaction between dancers, between orbs, and between dancers and orbs that suggest relationships, but they flit in and out of attention. This is one of the ideas behind the piece. “Our brains are pre-disposed to construct meaning from things. In dance, meaning is ambiguous; diverse; multiple. How do we read meaning into relationships with things?” This question drives the piece – we as humans assume a relationship, a story, which may not be there. Is this how we are beginning to interact with technology, and with each other online?
 
Koch agrees. In the days and times when the dance does not take place, guests can visit the installation, Zoological, and interact with the orbs themselves. People run around, whirl their arms in the air, or simply lie and watch how the orbs are reacting. Koch witnesses guests creating their own “mini, instinctual narratives that develop very quickly, very sub-consciously.”
 
So what of the orbs themselves? How exactly do they react to people? Essentially large, balloon-drones with an enormously complex computer algorithm controlling their movement, they aren’t actually unique to +/- Human. Koch explains that they “haven’t developed them from scratch – that would have taken five years. They’re not necessarily made to have this performative life – they’re made to do something more decorative”.


+/- Human © Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke

 
McGregor explains that the relationship of the algorithm, and how a set of detailed codes and programming can lead an object to seemingly act of its own accord, is mirrored in the dancing. The dancers are improvising, however rather than one aspect of improvisation – totally free, unplanned movements – the dancers practice another. “Much like jazz music, this is improvisation to create a language that itself sets up a whole series of very clear and concise constraints. You work inside of these to give you freedom”.
 
Is that more difficult for the dancers of The Royal Ballet? Surely they are used to a more regimented way of dancing? “The point of classical ballet – the technique of classical ballet – is to release a freedom of articulation and expression. It’s not an end to itself.” McGregor is clear that, once you have studied and learnt the language of a set of rules – the steps and points of ballet – you can then improvise within that language to create a new dialogue.
 
The work toys with this idea of our defined languages and social codes being a form of rules, which we then improvise with as we interact. As technology begins to operate in a similar way, how we then interact with that is a complex idea that is only just beginning to be explored. But Koch assures us it has already started, with apps like Siri, and Google Maps. “Cyclists are cycling around driven by an algorithm. It’s very present; it’s not the future any more.”


+/- Human © Ravi Deepres and Alicia Clarke
 
That interaction is at the heart of performance itself. McGregor believes that “dance is a collaborative, shared endeavour. Even if only one person is dancing, everybody shares in the moment on stage. It doesn’t matter if they’re standing on the edge of the space – the experience is the act of going through the fact of the process”. The fact that audiences watch dance and find meaning, and emotion, is at the heart of +/- Human – it challenges how much the human condition drives us to create narrative purely through “the kinaesthetic relationship that physical bodies offer”. The improvised nature of both the choreography and the orbs themselves ensures that “intent emerges rather than being set.”
 
As technology continues to improve and evolve at a rapid pace, is there more to come from this collaboration? McGregor is certain of it. “It’s an experiment; we’ve always thought of it as a beginning.”
 
+/- Human is at the Roundhouse, Camden, until 28 August. Tickets for the exhibition alone cost £5, and tickets for the dance start at £15, and include access to the installation afterward.
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