During World War I, a French airman cut his engine after reaching enemy airspace, and glided. As he came to 10,000 feet, with a light wind against him and a full moon lighting the way, he found himself among a flock of birds, ‘which seemed to be motionless, or at least showed no noticeable reaction. They were widely scattered and only a few yards below the aircraft, showing up against a white sea of cloud underneath.’ Two of the birds were caught in the machine, and were later identified as European swifts. They had apparently been sleeping in the air.
When I think of this story, I don’t think about the poor creatures killed by the plane, or even the miracle of birds several thousand feet up, snoozing on their migratory way. I think of what it must have felt like to be that Frenchman, gliding down through the charged and dangerous air into a brief space of inscrutable movement, a sudden alien calm surrounding him.
Random International’s Zoological, a new installation at the Roundhouse, captures an echo of this enigmatic sensation. A flock of white spheres, nesting in an annexe near the top of the dome, ‘wake’ and fly into the centre space. They are each powered by tiny fans, giving them an unnervingly alive-sounding insectile buzz. The spheres, using motion sensors, are programmed to react to their surroundings. During the course of the installation, they will be reacting to the public, who will find them hovering benevolently or menacingly, tracking and reacting to their movements. This evening, the orbs are reacting to dancers from the Royal Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor, performing +/- Human, Wayne McGregor’s equally enigmatic and complex new work.
In black underwear, with + or – symbols painted on their chests in black, the dancers enter the space in single file, then break apart. The orbs bob, apparently curious, and switch positions in the swarm. They form pillars and pyramids as, beneath them, the dancers split, stretch and break arabesque lines with diving swiftness, or tumble with vulpine energy around one another’s bodies. A remarkable phrase sees a group of them drawing close together then spinning out of the edges of the circular space with their arms outstretched, like sycamore seeds helicoptering through the wind; the orbs buzz and disperse the way cloud does.
+/- Human is so multipart that it becomes impossible to watch everything at once, though of course the eye is drawn to certain phrases, which require astonishing flexibility and control. Edward Watson is reassuringly sublime, of course; Chisato Katsura moves through the mysterious choreography with the uncanny exactitude of a lockpick moving through a keyhole. But the faces of the dancers are cool, serious, almost as blank as those of the white spheres. The swarm above and the swarm below have the obscurity of a murmuration of starlings. Occasionally the swarm below will look up, and a chill of individual human awareness passes over them.
The synth-thick soundscape, created by Warp Record artists including Clark, Gaika, Mark Pritchard and Lorenzo Senni, works as hard as the spheres or the dancers to leave the audience feeling as if they are a French airman who has descended among a flock of sleeping swifts, mystified and suddenly in an unknown place. It unstoppably alludes to a 1980s style retrofuturism, recalling sci-fi soundtracks where cyborgs have souls and bodies exist in symbiosis with technology. This is, of course, one of McGregor’s longstanding interests. Another collaboration with Random International, 2010’s Rain Room, had members of the public walking through a storm that never rained directly over them, and nine hours’ worth of choreographed movement.
+/- Human has an aesthetic exactitude that is pleasing and fascinating. The choreography is unmistakably McGregor; fans of his will enjoy the opportunity to get so close to the performers. The white spheres, though, which return quietly to their nests at the end of the piece, are a peculiar draw all by themselves. They are technologically advanced machines stripped their its tool-like aspect, their potential ‘use’, instead becoming a springboard for open-ended exploration. There is no purpose to them other than their exploratory existence. It’s fitting – swifts don’t need a reason to fly.
+/- Human is being performed on 11, 12, 18, 19, 25 and 16 of August 2017 at the Roundhouse. Click here for more details.