Blanca Li’s Robot at BAM is a fun but often muddled piece of dance theater, with a particularly unusual cast: half humans, half tiny (only a couple feet tall) robots. What she lacks in choreographic maturity, Ms Li certainly makes up for in exploring new frontiers of dance and science compatability.

<i>Robot</i> © Laurent Philippe
Robot
© Laurent Philippe

Much of Ms Li’s piece is well-structured; it’s easy to see the over-arching outline she’s created for a piece that, honestly, boils down to just dancing humans and dancing robots, but many of her sections seem to go on for too long. This is true even at the beginning, when robot imagery is projected perfectly onto a male dancer’s perfectly still body. In later sections, as when the (human) dancers rush on and off the stage at a more and more frenetic pace, as if they were workers in a harried factory, this allotment of time feels like a filler, as if Ms Li needed to fulfill a certain time limit or reach a particular musical cue. Her choreography, both for the dancers and the dancer-robot interactions, can occasionally slide into schmaltzy territory: at a certain point in the duet between a dancer and a robot, they hold hands. This may well be because a hand-to-hand connection allows for greater mobility and certainty, but it feels a little contrived.

Ms Li’s movement style seems appropriate for this theme, if not original. In the opening, the dancers move like, well, robots, robotically adjusting from one pose to the next. Later moments were freer, but every now and then a move or phrase would jar me. At one point, I saw a dancer perform a switch-leap, a movement typically reserved for competition or adolescent studio dance here in the US.

The music for this piece gets its own section (perhaps rightfully so): a mechanical, carefully programmed band – heavier on the percussive side – provides much of the evening’s accompaniment, and each instrument gets its own little introduction, complete with a roll downstage and a solo light spot. Ms Li is certainly consistent; her non-human participants in this dance get the same treatment as her human performers, across the board.

<i>Robot</i> © A. Jerocki
Robot
© A. Jerocki

But there’s something vaguely false about a show where audience members audibly exclaim “Awwwwww!” That’s a sound usually reserved for very young children onstage, or else cute animals. It’s not that robots don’t deserve that response – they certainly elicit it, especially because of their petite size (a calculated move, I’m sure) – it’s just that it feels out of place in BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

But Ms Li does deserve credit for fearlessly mixing two genres – dance and science – which aren’t combined nearly often enough. Regardless of the robots’ cute factor, it was an impressive thing to watch a completely mechanical thing perform dance movements (nuanced ones, at that) and move so easily and realistically.

<i>Robot</i> © A. Jerocki
Robot
© A. Jerocki

My companion for the evening and I differed in opinion over whether Ms Li meant (or at least planned) for the robots to fall over. The dancers, professionals that they are, easily corrected any upside-down robots with a typical dancer's flourish, but I wondered if this performance was more fraught with pratfalls than others, particularly in the section where the robot wore a feather boa and was supposed to be lip-syncing a song as several ladies danced around him. I suppose it doesn't really matter, in the end; watching the robots fall definitely delighted the audience.