Bots Do Ballet in Brooklyn, and the Crowd Goes Wild

Seven Nao robots steal the spotlight in a modern dance performance

2 min read
Bots Do Ballet in Brooklyn, and the Crowd Goes Wild
A Nao robot shows off its dance moves.
Photo: Laurent Philippe

The audience was rooting for the little guys right from the start.

On Tuesday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a human-robot ballet got a classy New York City debut. The piece, which is simply called “Robot,” featured seven cute little Nao humanoids from Aldebaran Robotics, who danced withand often upstagedeight excellent human dancers.

Don’t get me wrong, the bots weren’t about to win a dance-off against the professionals. They were only ocassionally graceful, and fell down fairly often (there’s a lot of that going around these days). Instead they won the crowd over through emotion, appealing to the capacious human heart. 

The first Nao made his initial appearance on stage in a dramatic unboxing. A dancer opened the front of a knee-high crate to reveal the bot (apparently named Pierre) standing inside. The human took hold of Pierre’s outstretched hands and helped him take his first halting steps onto the stage, and the audience reflexively let loose with a loud “awwwww” as if we were watching a chubby toddler.

These hesitant first steps led to a sweet pas de deux, with the human slowly teaching Pierre how to dance. The synchronized routine, with the human’s expressive and expansive actions crudely mimicked by the bot, played up the teacher-student or parent-child relationship, and made modified Whitney Houston lyrics run through my head: “I believe the robots are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”

A trailer for 'Robots' by the Blanca Li Dance Company.Video: Blanca Li

A little later, all seven Naos unboxed themselves and came to the front of the stage for a sychronized number that made them look like the world’s worst boy band: Even with simple moves, several bots lost their balance and toppled over in the course of the routine.

Each time a bot went down its bandmates carried on with the dance, but the audience’s attention was fixed on the turtle-like Nao on its back, struggling to get up. When the slow maneuvering of limbs ended with a Nao rising to its feet and rejoining the dance, the crowd broke into applause. These moments of malfunction became highlights of the show, as we humans looked for plucky determination in the souls of these mechanical dancers, and found it. 

Much credit for this evocative performance goes to the Spanish choreographer Blanca Li, who created the ballet in 2013 and has toured Europe with it. But the audience’s response is also a testament to the design prowess of Aldebaran Robotics. The company designed Nao to be a friendly, relatable companion, and it has found uses as a therapeutic aid for kids on the autism spectrum and as a comforting presence in hospitals and pediatricians’ offices

There’s a lot more to the show. Li has said it’s meant as a meditation on “what it is to be human,” and more than half of the show featured only human performers on stage. These pieces played with the theme in a variety of ways. In one, dancers in assembly-line worksuits enacted the automated routines of daily life, brushing their teeth, checking their phones, and so on. In another, one dancer with a remote control commanded another dancer who had an antenna mounted on his head. 

It was all well and good. The human dancers were fantastic, and the choreography was thought-provoking. But the robots were clearly the best part. 

“Robot” is being performed at BAM through this weekend. 

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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

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