garry stewart: dance evolution in the age of robotics

erin brannigan, adt’s devolution, rt71

Louis-Philippe Demers, Garry Stewart

Louis-Philippe Demers, Garry Stewart

Louis-Philippe Demers, Garry Stewart

Australian Dance Theatre (ADT) will premiere a new work, Devolution, at the 2006 Adelaide Festival. For his seventh full-length work for the company and following his collaboration with acclaimed photographer Lois Greenfield on Held (RT59,p30), Artistic Director Garry Stewart is working with Canadian lighting and machine designer Louis-Philippe Demers and UK filmmaker Gina Czarnecki. Demers has worked with artists as diverse as Robert Lepage, Stelarc and Cirque du Soleil and has undertaken residencies with ZKM and EMAF in Germany and VIA, EXIT and Lille2004 in France. Czarnecki has been creating screen work that challenges the parameters of representing the human form since 1998, her most recent film being the award-winning Nascent in collaboration with Stewart and ADT.

Devolution places dancers and robots together onstage and will realise another chapter in Stewart’s pursuit of extreme parameters for choreographic invention.


You have gathered an impressive group of collaborators together for Devolution and have developed a real skill for this during your time at ADT. How did you meet your key collaborator on this project, robotics artist Louis-Philippe Demers?

I met Louis-Philippe through Julieanne Pearce who was the Director of ANAT (Australian Network for Art and Technology) at the time. I had asked her if she could recommend any artists working in new media that she thought I might be interested in, so she forwarded me some videos of his work along with the work of some other international artists. Louis-Philippe’s work immediately grabbed me. That was about 3 years ago. I contacted him via email around that time and suggested that we might look at the idea of working together. It wasn’t until around 18 months later that I contacted him again with a serious proposal. I didn’t want to rush into working with him but wanted to wait until I had gestated exactly the right idea to put forward to him.


What is it about dance—and your dance in particular—that attracted Demers to this work?

I know Louis-Philippe is very interested in dance and very aware of the work of the major choreographers, but I don’t think I can adequately answer this question for him. This is the first time he has collaborated with a dance company in his capacity as a roboticist. Over the past year or so we have met up a number of times overseas while ADT has been on tour. He saw the company perform Held in Monaco, Birdbrain in London and The Age of Unbeauty in Belgium. I remember he was particularly taken with …Unbeauty. I think the expressionistic darkness of the work appealed to his sensibilities. Louis-Philippe is also a lighting and set designer and was teaching design at the Hoschule attached to ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. He is doing the lighting design for Devolution as well.


The question of the ‘anthropomorphic potential of robotic machines’ is at least as old as science fiction—what does dance bring to this theme in Devolution?

I don’t think that this is the only thing that we are exploring in Devolution, however anthropomorphism is an obvious parameter in working with robotics, particularly when robots are operating in communion with humans. It’s unavoidable really. In Devolution we are acknowledging the robots as machines and in doing so we are also exploring the mechanical, machine-like function of the human body. This, as well as the zoomorphic potential of bodies. 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.

There is also something very creature-like about Louis-Philippe’s previous robotic work, so it really provided the cue for me to head in this direction. I’ve been working with the dancers on exploring choreographic relationships that respond to ecosystem processes: territoriality, parasitism, predation, symbiosis, senescence, birth, death and growth, which has included a series of discussions with a local biologist, Steve Griffiths.

As performing entities, the robots are given equal status to the human bodies in the work, albeit with some major operational differences. I haven’t tried to conceptually separate robots and humans as different ‘species’ but have been interested in the collision and confluence of the two. Let’s see what happens when we collide these operating systems—that sort of thing. It’s as much an experiment in morphology and function as anything else.

I’ve also been working with dramaturg Anne Thompson and she has drawn my attention to the writings of Paul Virilio on speed and technology. Given the insistence of velocity in my work this has been interesting in terms of understanding this element in choreography.


You have an interest in technology and the body which extends to training technologies for your dancers and their super-human quality in performance. Where does this come from? And was robotic prosthetics a logical next step?

The interest in technology is, in part, a by-product of my need to reappraise my choreography on an ongoing basis. I suppose it’s not really about the ‘technology’ per se which seems to have become common parlance in the arts for anything new and innovative. It could be macramé really. The collision of my working method with that of another artist forces me to renegotiate the assumptions upon which I habitually operate. I’m not someone who can do the same thing year in year out, so it’s important for me to regularly veer onto the edge of something mysterious and slightly unknown. As an artist I’m quite self-critical and I never feel that I’ve fully ‘arrived’ anywhere. However, I think this is a necessary state for me.

Also, collaborations offer the opportunity to work with some really fantastic people. I’ve been really very lucky with both Lois Greenfield and Louis-Philippe and have learnt so much from both of them, each in very different ways. For Devolution I am also working with Gina Czarnecki. Already, Gina’s work for Devolution is extraordinary. It continues along the same trajectory as the film we did together last year, Nascent.

Czarnecki’s work provides the key to the representation of the biological body. In a powerful oscillation between micro and macro worlds, she painstakingly treats the raw footage of dancers frame by frame in post-production so that it begins to resemble a DNA strand, or the spinal column or cell division, yet at the same time reads as bodies. Her work takes months to achieve and is as detailed as fine tapestry.

In regard to working with prosthetics, I’m not sure if it was a ‘logical’ step for me but—and I’ll be a bit Jungian here—I think there was some fundamental necessity for my work to move into this new arena at this point, and the project synchronistically provided the appropriate means. For me, Held was the most extreme example in a cycle of works that I had made for ADT up to that point. They were primarily occupied with manufacturing a vocabulary constituted from the assemblage of a number of extreme physical forms. Devolution eschews this to a large degree, and although there is a pursuit of the ‘extreme’ it is not simply through ‘heroic’, aerial virtuosity. If anything, the prosthetics have forced my work to remain planted on the ground. The forceful dynamism that characterizes my previous work is still there, but delivered through an energetic body that is often rooted to the spot.

Australian Dance Theatre, Devolution, concept & direction Garry Stewart, choreography Garry Stewart & ADT dancers, robots & lighting design Louis-Philippe Demers, video Gina Czarnecki, costume design Georg Meyer-Wiel, composer Darrin Verhagen; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide Festival, March 1-8

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 2

© Erin Brannigan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2006