There is a tender moment at the close of Wayne McGregor and Random International’s latest collaboration, No One is an Island, when two dancers lie beneath the sculpture that forms the centrepiece of the work. It’s as if they are being enveloped by it. The sculpture is a robotic machine, which over the course of the 12-minute live performance ‘dances’ alongside its fellow (human) performers. 

As in their previous creative partnerships, No One is an Island, presented by BMWi and Superblue, and premiered during this year’s Frieze London, is infused with a spirit of enquiry. The quietly meditative but arresting work raises questions such as how we recognise an object as ‘human’ through its movement, and how we relate to our own image, our own humanness, when it is in motion.

Wayne McGregor and Random International performance robot

Random International seeded the ideas for the sculpture, called Fifteen Points/II, during artists’ residencies in the US, one of which was at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Comprising a set of robotic ‘arms’, programmed to move along two parallel tracks, the machine they developed is designed around models of human movement as represented by 15 moving light points, hence the illuminated tips of Fifteen Points/II.

As the robot articulates its way through space, Company Wayne McGregor dancers Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Jacob O’Connell weave around and through the sculpture, exploring their own sense of being bodies in motion, while also contemplating the gestures of the machine. At times they pause, as if they are engaging in a silent, physical conversation with the robot. This grand pas de deux of sorts culminates in the ‘limbs’ of Fifteen Points/II marking the outline of a human shape ‘walking’ towards and away from us. It’s a dramatic and ephemeral moment in the work, evoking the feeling that the machine has come alive. 

 ’No One is an Island’. Installation of Random International in collaboration with Studio Wayne McGregor. Images courtesy of BMW

‘This work is an emotional prototype for what we might expect in future with machines,’ say Random International. ‘What happens to us, what do we feel when we see a thing (a robot!) that moves like us, but doesn’t otherwise look at all like we do? Do we connect?’

‘During the performance, the dancers boot the robotic sculpture and wrestle life into it. It synergises future and present, technology and humanity – a topic that drives us as a company,’ adds Christiane Pyka, BMW Group Arts & Design Cooperations.

McGregor says that when he saw an early study for Fifteen Points, it felt like an object, or an ‘instrument’ as he likes to call it, with ‘an amazing visceral and poetic power’. ‘This robot moves harmoniously with grace and elegance,’ he comments. ‘It is, in itself, a sensual, aesthetically pleasing living machine. No One is an Island invites us to interact with it as we do, body to body, in real life.’

Wayne McGregor and Random International performance

As an entry point to the choreography, he and his dancers started with a study of the biomechanics of the sculpture. ‘We began with trying to understand the physicality of the robot,’ says McGregor. ‘How does it move through space, how does it kinetically flow?’ During rehearsals, he witnessed the dancers developing a connection with the machine that resonated for him: ‘I had a Tamagotchi when I was younger and it is incredible how quickly I built a relationship with it – I was devastated when it was roasted! The dancers built a bond with the No One is an Island robot in a similar way and very quickly.’

The sonic backdrop for McGregor’s sinuous choreography and often delicate gestures of the machine is an original score by Japanese musician Chihei Hatakeyama. Through its waves of sound and subtle tonal shifts, the music adds a mesmerising quality to the performance. McGregor describes Hatakeyama as an ‘acoustic sculptor’ and often plays his music in the studio while he is working, ‘It felt important to have a score for this work that allowed you to enter a liminal world where nothing felt fixed,’ he says. 

Wayne McGregor and Random International performance
Both McGregor and Random International point to the climax of the performance – the robot ‘walking’ – as the most interesting part of the work. ‘That’s where you really experience cognitive dissonance on the awakening of the entire machine,’ say Random International. What McGregor has choreographed up to this point is a movement narrative, an ‘energetic engagement’ in his words, or series of ‘co-ordinations’, beautifully expressed by his dancers, which prepare us for this moment of connection.

‘We suddenly realise (again) that we’re not alone,’ say Random International. ‘We don’t exist in isolation and we thrive on feeling with others.’ 

Wayne McGregor and Random International performance robot

What No One is an Island makes us feel is at the heart of a longstanding and ongoing investigation by both McGregor and Random International. For all the artists, an exploration of our physical ‘communication behaviours’ affords us a glimpse of a possible future relationship between man and machine.

‘As robots become more intelligent, and as AI and machine learning help train and evolve agency, these questions will become even more resonant and explosive,’ says McGregor. What may unfold between us and them, he suggests, is a ‘new movement language’, which is a dazzling idea – a true and exciting step into the unknown. §