Dancing robots have come a long way since Mr. Roboto.
From popping and locking in mechanical fashion to contemporary dances incorporating massive machines, "doing the robot" may have a whole new meaning in the future.
Join us on the dance floor with breakdancing mimes, hoverboard acrobats, giant mechs, and adorable industrial instruments.
Are we human, or are we dancer?
...or are we robots?
The first performers to do a version of what would become "the robot" were silent film actors and mimes in the 1920s, who created comical dances in the stilted style of mannequins. This was also around the time in history when the word "robot" began to circulate in English, and the mannequin dance was mixed with the idea of a mechanical man.
According to one history, it was a mime performer named Robert Shields who inspired Charles "Robot" Washington, the dancer who popularized the robot as a dance move on the TV program Soul Train in the 1960s.
Washington's style was the predecessor for the robot becoming a classic dance as integral as popping, locking, and other breakdancing moves:
In the early 1970s, at the height of Jackson 5 mania, Michael Jackson did the robot as part of his choreography for "Dancing Machine," so he also takes some credit for bringing the robot into the mainstream. Honestly, is there a single dance trend that you can't trace back to MJ?
There are multiple other differing claims to the robot's origination; some sources say that dancers in Chicago and Los Angeles before Soul Train was nationally broadcast perfected the style. Others say it should be attributed to the locking master Don Campbell.
But it may be safe to say the style hasn't been truly perfected until you can't tell the difference between human and robot...
Dances With Robots
Modern dance has undoubtedly been influenced by technology, from live projection mapping to create digitally composited environments, to wearables that can create a data visualization of a ballerina's every move. So it shouldn't be surprising that contemporary choreographers are putting robots on their stages as well.
Most of these dances highlight the opposition between man and machine, while trying to create moments of tenderness and collaboration. Take for example, the caveman-like choreography in Seraph, performed in 2011 by MIT's CSAIL and the Pilobolus modern dance company, featuring a human and a few small drones:
While this kind of stark contrast between (mostly naked) man and (blinking, flying) machine is easy to communicate via modern dance, it is a rather straightforward narrative. Maybe it's a little more interesting when we try to incorporate robots seamlessly, without highlighting their opposition to our fleshy human nature.
While the hoverboard may not technically count as a robot, The RollBots, a group of acrobatic modern dancers formerly known as the "Acrobots," definitely blur the line between human and machine. They garnered over 5 million clicks for their rolling routine to Justin Bieber's "Sorry":
Dancing with robots has also served as a gateway to young women learning about hardware and software: these girls from the Young Women's Leadership School created a dance piece for the Annual NYC Computer Science Fair by programming their LEDs and Sphero robots to be part of the choreography.
Image if all the little girls who are pushed into ballet classes at age 5 also started learning to code at that age!
One of the hardest things about including robots in dance is their physical limitations. Most robots are not constructed to have the same flexibility as a human in their joints, or fluidity in their movement. However, that isn't stopping them from trying.
For 2016's Chinese New Year, 540 small, humanoid robots were programmed to perform a synchronized dance while drones dropped glitter from the sky:
The QRIO was a robot prototype similar to the ones that performed for Chinese New Year that was designed, tested, and marketed by SONY along with their robot dog AIBO in the early 2000s, but was never released commercially. A semi-holographic Beck was the first and seemingly only artist to get to use QRIO robots in his 2005 video for Hell Yes (and it may be only music video magic, but they are pretty funky little guys):
The Robotiq blog has listed several other examples of great robot dances, including this massive and uncomfortably smooth LG-branded robot spotted doing a two-step in Brazil in 2015:
Although many have assumed this footage is fake or part of some kind of viral marketing campaign, other videos have surfaced of similarly modeled robots dancing to Latin beats.
It looks like the giant robot battles that mecha animes have predicted for the future in Asia will actually be based in South America, and are more likely to be dance battles.
The big big bots
The biggest stars on the dance scene have come from a very unlikely background. They are ABB and KUKA robots, two of the world's leading manufacturers of industrial robot arms. In promotional videos, these robots have performed odd human tasks; maybe you've seen a KUKA face off in tennis against a world champion, or ABB robots playing snooker.
Thomas Freundlich, an internationally renowned Finnish choreographer and dance filmmaker, has used ABB robot arms in several of his pieces. In these excerpts from Actuator, a dance film from 2008, you can see how much the stakes are raised with the industrial equipment serving as robot duet partner, in comparison with the project using MIT's drones. In the first clip, a very 2001: A Space Odyssey moment finds the male dancer on his knees reaching for a stick (0:30), and when the ABB rears its head up as the embodiment of all technological progress (1:15-1:30) it is massive, powerful, godlike, but later dances alone to Billy Holiday (3:44) and is somehow able to express an approximation of longing as its body/arm writhes and extends outwards.
KUKA robots have also gotten in on the stagecraft game, teaming up with the Blue Man Group in Las Vegas to help those indigo boys bust out some beats:
But sometimes even hard-working industrial robots just want to have fun, too! Robolounge is a group dedicated to creating performances using industrial robots artistically, and are available to create choreography for a variety of types of events and spaces. They even offer custom special effects like adding lightsabers to the robots' arms.
First they take all the auto factory jobs, now they're coming for the Blue Men and the go-go girls! But until they can pirouette off of those stands and do a little more than a full-body arm wiggle, it seems like human dancers are, well... as secure in their profession as most artists these days.
Robots, like all technologies that change the way we relate to our bodies and selves, will continue to influence the art of dance.
We're sure to see more humanoid robots learning to boogie, and maybe even some designed to pull moves beyond human capability.
Man and machine will waltz into the future together: warm, meaty cheek to cold, metal cheek.