In Sans Objet two acrobats and one industrial robot enact a dance between humanity and technology. As the robot is born, begins to react to its environment, develops self-awareness, and finally moves beyond to express an inscrutable purpose, our definition of humanity and its limits is stretched and tested. Here the director Aurélien Bory talks about the creation of the work.
The machine is at the centre of the stage – he's the motor, the engine, the power, and the mystery also, because the machine is not only one thing in this show. It is many, many things in this show. Sometimes it is completely hidden and we don't see it. At the start it is covered by a black plastic sheet; we cannot see the machine, but this only makes it more alive as it moves underneath. It is a kind of kinetic sculpture, speaking of the birth of the shape, the birth of life, and the birth of beauty – because it is a very beautiful thing that is made with an ugly plastic sheet. At the end, Sans Objet is connected with death, or not really death but a kind of question mark, and I wanted to work in-between these two things – between birth and the question of death or what is next – in creating a dance between human beings and technology.
The beginning of Sans Objet was to think about technology. I wanted to consider the fact that technology is growing in everyday life and that we are now in dialogue with technology every day. Technology mediates our relationship to the world, and so it's going to grow and grow – it won't decrease, and we cannot escape from it. I wanted to talk about this, and I began to wonder what is the thing that is 100% technology, what is technology – it is not only a machine, but something with autonomy. I realised that this object that embodies technology is the figure of the robot – or it is the idea of the robot, which is a very old idea.
Then I asked myself: What was the first robot? And I found that the first was the industrial robot, built during the 1960s and then hugely developed during the late 60s and early 70s. This robot, an industrial robot arm with six rotational axes, didn't really change after that early period of intensive development – in terms of electronics and computing it of course became more complex, but it was the same object: the six-axis arm. And I said, OK this is the first robot, about my age. When I was born, he was there.
And what is a robot like this? In simple terms, it is a machine that is able to move itself and that is able to move other things. In my theatre I always work with the movement of a body or the movement of an object, so in a way an actor in my theatre is doing the same thing as a robot – moving itself and moving objects. In my theatre robots and actors speak the same language. They share this.
My first big challenge was to find a robot and to learn about robots – because at the start I knew nothing. I began to explore the world of robots – because it is a world – and I discovered that there is a second-hand market for them, and even that they are not really that expensive. You need a license to own a robot, so I sent my technician Tristan Baudoin to learn how to programme and to use these machines.
The second challenge was of course to find if it was possible to put the robot on stage – because it's very heavy and you cannot fix it on the stage. In the factory the robot is held down with some very large steel bolts, driven one metre into the concrete floor, so of course a theatre stage is a completely different proposition, plus there's the question of transportation, loading, everything. So this was the first question: Is it possible or not, is it reasonable or not, is it safe or not? I had a wonderful technical team who did a study, and the answer was Yes, so then once I had this robot I wondered what I wanted to do with it.
Should I have the robot alone, or the robot with one actor? This was my first idea: one machine, one human, in dialogue. But then I decided that, no, I needed two actors, because in life technology is very often working between human beings. Technology changing our relationships means technology changing our relationships to others – to other people. I also needed two people so that they could watch one another; when something is happening to somebody there's another one watching, to witness what is happening.
Once I had my two people, my two men, my actors, I decided that the main character was the robot and the supporting role would be taken by the actors. The idea was to invert the usual hierarchy, to be a little bit provocative in this way, and because the robot is a kind of large-scale puppetry, a sort of technological puppetry, I decided that the actors also had to be puppets, manipulated by the robot, and that when the robot handled them the actors should be passive. In all of the scenes they are passive – or they are followers.
So in this set-up I had a kind of drama story – a kind of story, because in my theatre there's not a storyline as there is in narrative theatre, but there is a kind of drama there. In rehearsals we spent a lot of time trying to find the ideas and asking ourselves, What can we do with this machine? In the first six weeks nothing happened – only bugs with the machine. It was terrible, and I feared that nothing would be possible and began to think that a machine like this was not made for theatre. But then we got to grips with it, we changed everything – the computer, even the machine itself – and we found we could work with it – but very, very slowly. The machine rhythm is not the rhythm of theatre, and so it was very slow. We had to be very patient. You have an idea, and then you have three hours of programming, and then you see your idea and it's not a good one, so you look for another.
First, we did some improvisation with the actors. OK, can you climb the robot? Can you do this? Can you do that? And then we would do the programming and see if it actually worked or not. At first it was a little scary to work with the robot, and then it was also difficult because I just used this robot as it was – I didn't transform it; it is only steel. I wanted to make a dance between the body and this steel machine, but the machine is cold and hard and not very good to dance with. That is why it is important that the performers are acrobats. The two actors, Olivier Alenda and Olivier Boyer, are very good acrobats; when they work with me they know they are doing something different, but at the same time they use their ability. If I had had dancers it would have been very different. As acrobats, they can climb, they can stand at a height of three or four metres without a problem – so perhaps it is not comfortable for them, but it is all right. There are moments in the show when they have to be hidden in the floor, to be very, very compressed in the floor, and they have to be aware of the danger, so this piece is talking a little bit as well about the acrobat. They have to be acrobats in this show, even if there are no acrobatics. I like to work with acrobats because they have some very different and specific ways to explore the possibility of what I propose in the theatrical space.
In creation I try to find the idea that I couldn't imagine before – I'm looking for the idea that I could never have had just by writing in my notebook. I work with very limited objects and then try to find some direction, some very different direction with only these few things. When I focus on a single thing I have to find a range of possibility, and then in the rehearsal space I hope that with all the team, with the actors and technicians, with everybody, some new ideas will emerge by chance or by coincidence, and these are the ideas I prefer. It is what it means for me to create: it is not knowing what we are going to have or going to find. What we eventually show is not something that has come from my mind; it has come from the stage. We put material on the stage, and we struggle with this, and most of the time it is just bullshit. It is like being in a blizzard – we see nothing, and we don't know where we're going. But then in one moment you have some concentration, some focus, some very good ideas coming from this mess. Most of the time it is a mess, but sometimes it is something, and it is this something that you keep for your show. So I trust this – this process of working the materials with everybody, with the technicians, the actors, everybody, and we are in the dust on stage, in a big mess, and trying to do something, and then when we have those very beautiful ideas I try to arrange it in a kind of drama structure. It is what I prefer in the act of creation.
The extracted scene is from a performance of Sans Objet at Paris' Théâtre des Abbesses on 5 February 2010.
John Ellingsworth interviewed Aurélien Bory 26 October 2013 in Auch at the offices of Festival CIRCa.
This interview was produced as part of the project Deconstructing Circus with the support of Arts Council England.