When Antony Hamilton and Alisdair Macindoe take the Walker stage this weekend, they will do so in unlikely company. The Australian duo will perform the technically complex, genre-bending, MEETING, to a percussive score played by 64 tiny robots. A work that began as a choreographic experiment has, with the help of these automated accompanists, become a reflection on the relationship between the biological, mechanical, and digital, that the duo has been touring internationally since 2015.
Macindoe, the sound designer for MEETING, as well as a performer, has always had an interest in music in addition to his contemporary dance training. Hamilton comes from a contemporary dance background as well, but he also had a breakdance practice growing up. Hamilton and Macindoe met while they were both working as contemporary dancers in Melbourne. When Hamilton began creating more of his own work, he hired Macindoe as a dancer and sound designer. MEETING is the fourth time the two have worked together on one of Hamilton’s projects.
While it may seem strange to think about now, MEETING was originally conceived when Hamilton approached Macindoe with the idea for a duo between the two men that would be performed in silence.
“As a sound designer, that proposal was stimulating,” said Macindoe. “It immediately sparked an interest: a sound designer [asking], ‘What is the product of that? Why do you want silence?’ Maybe, the reasoning behind that can sort of unfold a potential for sound that is unusual or interesting.”
The development of MEETING, was focused on a specific choreographic style that Hamilton had been working with, one that revolved in large part around counting and a numerical system. MEETING was not designed around a thematic idea—one of the reasons Hamilton originally envisioned the piece taking place in silence. Additionally, he wanted to make sure that everything that occurred in the piece did so onstage, in real time.
“He didn’t want the music to be some sort of magical system like speakers, where the sound just emerges from a black space and anything can come from it,” said Macindoe. “He wanted the piece to be straightforward—what you see is what you get, what’s onstage is the only thing that is the show.”
This concept led to the idea of live, acoustic sound, and with the focus on time and meter, it always made sense to Macindoe to have the sound be percussive. This is the first time Macindoe, who built all the robots himself, has done a piece with entirely original hardware. The unique sound source in MEETING became an investigation unto itself.
“Working with the instruments really opened up this whole channel of investigation,” said Macindoe. “The music had a very specific presence in the room. That presence immediately linked the programmatic style of composition I was doing with the choreography in a physical, tangible way.”
Dancing with the robots poses a unique challenge, because they perceive time at a rate of two milliseconds—a feat which humans (whose response rates to external stimuli have a lag of about 80 milliseconds) are not capable of. Usually when rehearsing dances set to counts, dancers count out loud, or dance to a count spoken by the choreographer. This allows for some flexibility if dancers fall off pace or make mistakes. But unlike live human accompaniment, the robots do not adjust their playing to accommodate the dancers. Instead, it falls on Hamilton and Macindoe to time their movements to their perfectly metered partners. This intensive process has helped the pair develop an interest in the relationship between the biological and the mechanical—an unavoidable dichotomy in MEETING.
“It was a real challenge every day when we’d rehearse sections to be as perfect as [the robots] were,” said Macindoe. “There was this literal difference between the skill set that we had and the skill set that they had, and we were in competition with that. There was a boisterousness, a one-upmanship, and a camaraderie between me and [Hamilton], and between us and the objects. We didn’t want to feel like we weren’t keeping up with them.”
The degree of difficulty in performing MEETING and the challenge of matching the technical perfection of their robotic musicians has kept the work fresh for Hamilton and Macindoe, something Macindoe believes translates to their audiences.
“I’ve performed this piece more than any other piece in my career, and it’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do onstage. Not because of its physical feat but because of the mental feat required to do it. Because of that you can’t really ever feel accomplished, you can’t really ever feel on top of the show,” said Macindoe. “Sometimes performance can sort of die or change, the initial sense of authenticity can change, but with this show that doesn’t seem to happen. It’s kind of inexplicable.”