Breathless: A Durational Tribute to the Choreography of Work

By Hilary Bergen

Thursday, December 14, 2023

There was a phrase I heard often when I trained as a dancer: “Dancers make good workers.” It was a sentiment repeated by my technique teachers, choreographers, and mentors. The manager of a restaurant job I interviewed for, upon learning I was a dancer, was thrilled. “I love hiring dancers,” she said. “They’re the best at taking direction and they really know how to work as a team.” There’s truth in this. Dancers also know how to use embodied repetition to strive towards a goal, technical form, or feeling. And in this striving is the dancer’s bodily pain and fatigue not overridden by the programming of such striving? Dancers can be workers of a precise, attentive and, at times, mechanical, order. At the same time, dancers’ labor is also chronically under-valued and underpaid, and dance is seldom understood as real “work.”

The devaluing of body-based work is familiar to those who perform arduous physical labor daily: bricklayers, factory workers, house cleaners, and painters, for example. These jobs rely on the meticulous repetition of gestural tasks: a repetition that produces a choreography of work on the quotidian “stage.” Unlike dancers, these workers don’t have an audience. 

Breathless: Catie and the Robot is an upcoming NationalSawdust+ show by choreographer and Stanford Ph.D. roboticist Catie Cuan and Berkeley artist and Engineering professor Ken Goldberg that aims to highlight the unsung bodies of physical laborers through the poetry of dance. Cuan will perform an 8-hour durational dance—the length of a traditional American workday—in duet with an industrial robot arm. 

The choreography of the 6-axis robot arm that Cuan will dance with is influenced by her improvisations, and Cuan’s movements have in turn been informed by the robot’s kinetics. The robot arm isn’t android in appearance, but it does have human-esque sinusoidal movement patterns, meaning that its movements smoothly follow the trajectory of a sine curve in a dancerly manner, and it has the capacity to be interactive. To choreograph the robot, Cuan and Goldberg came up with some movement “motifs” inspired by manual labor such as lifting, sweeping, pulling, vacuuming, newspaper-throwing, and painting a wall. These “prompt-based movements” were then formulated into sequences, processed through an AI software titled OpenPose, and mapped onto the robot arm using data coordinates. Once the robot arm performs a version of Cuan’s movement sequences, she then allows the robot’s dancing to inform her own movement, and so on.

Both Cuan and the robot are embodied in that they both take up 3D space, but the robot arm is much more limited; Cuan is much more expressive, and this influences their duet. In her seven years of dancing with robots, Cuan notes that there is a “constantness” to the pattern of robot motion that makes dancing with machines very different from dancing with humans. Unlike human dancers, robots have “no long priors or socialization in relation to norms about care and professionalism,” or technical dance training. Robots also have surprising emergent behaviors and unexpected technical difficulties. Because of this, Cuan says, there is a different type of risk associated with choreorobotics

The risk of the unreliable machine seems to go hand in hand with the common narrative of robot takeover in the workplace. Some of this fearmongering relates to the etymology of the word “Robot” (a Czech word that derives from the Slavonic term Robota), which means “servitude” or “forced labor.” Not only are robots configured as servile in their dedication, they are also understood to hold within them the violent potential of the oppressed mass. However, the consensus is that physical labor might be better performed by a body that does not need to rest, eat, sleep, or get paid, and that won’t complain about long hours. If “dancers make good workers,” a dancing robot might be understood as the ultimate worker, as seen in recent marketing videos released by Boston Dynamics, for example, where dancing robots can pirouette and do the twist just as skillfully as they can lift pallets or perform factory jobs.

Breathless validates the work of physical laborers, rather than dehumanizing them, and aims to counteract the common narrative of robot takeover in the workplace by teasing out the expressive, dance-like qualities of the robot arm…In viewing embodied labor as a kind of dance, Breathless: Catie and the Robot asks the audience to witness manual work as choreographed and performed.”

The history of the human worker is also a history of the machinic body. Goldberg and Cuan’s influences for Breathless include the scientific human motion studies conducted by photographers like Eadweard Muybridge and the Frank and Lillian Gilbreth during the second industrial revolution (1870-1914). Muybridge often used dancers in his studies, and had his subjects perform predetermined sequences of gestures through space. These were often simple gestures, like jumping, twirling, or even just standing and sitting. Muybridge used a technique called chronophotography, or a sequence of photographs, to observe human motion through space and time. This tendency is also seen in visual art at the time, including Marcel DuChamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” (1912), where time is compressed and the many possibilities of the moving body can be seen all at once, in the same image.

Motion studies like these contributed to industrial capitalism by disciplining and standardizing the productivity of workers and maximizing profit. They had a deep impact on the concept of the working body (or the organization of work) on the assembly line under Taylorism. The Gilbreths, for example, recorded the gestures of manual laborers such as bricklayers and soap-makers, who wore small lamps on their wrists and limbs and were then captured by the time-lapse photographic technique. The resulting photodynamic streams of light were like maps of the way these workers’ bodies moved through space as they went about their tasks. The Gilbreths argued that by reducing the number of unnecessary movements done by the workers, they could increase efficiency and productivity. The purpose was to identify and eliminate “industrial waste” in the form of movement. The Gilbreth motion studies reveal that the best type of working body is a mechanically efficient one. 

In Breathless, Cuan’s duet with the robot arm uses dance to navigate the history of the mechanical working body. The title of the show—Breathless—evokes both the tired dancer or worker in need of a break, and the robot body, which is naturally without breath or the need to breathe. Why approach these themes through dance? Breathless demonstrates that the history of machines and physical labor is also a history of dance. Plus, as Cuan articulates, “we need to dance with new technology, because dance is one of the oldest ways we make sense of the world.” Dancing is a crucial method of communication and understanding that can help us interpret novel inventions like robots and their impact on the workforce. 

Breathless validates the work of physical laborers, rather than dehumanizing them, and aims to counteract the common narrative of robot takeover in the workplace by teasing out the expressive, dance-like qualities of the robot arm. Cuan and Goldberg explain that the “rhythms” that emerge in their piece are meant to mirror our own energetic cycles in the every day, and the lyrical quality of repetitive movement. In viewing embodied labor as a kind of dance, Breathless: Catie and the Robot asks the audience to witness manual work as choreographed and performed.

About Hilary Bergen

Hilary Bergen is a writer, dancer and Postdoctoral Researcher at The New School in New York City where she studies VR, dance and animated bodies. She is currently co-editing an anthology called Robot Theater and is writing a book under contract with Oxford University Press titled Dance Anima: More-than-Human Choreography from Loie Fuller to Boston Dynamics.