Woman in gauzy top and underwear, man in dark trousers and open shirt, each in disco-pose with one arm up and the other out. Behind them are neon blue lights, and a yellow door, and the whole scene is soaked in dark red light.

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Dance+: Ex Machina

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The unnerving AI disco dance in Alex Garland’s movie makes Georgia Howlett wonder about dance, autopilot and self-programming

People often claim they learnt to dance before they could walk. In Alex Garland’s 2014 Ex-Machina, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a highly advanced humanoid AI, need not learn at all: ‘I always knew how to speak, and that’s strange isn’t it?’ Yes Ava, it is.

Technology is prolifically used to research and enjoy dance in new ways, but dance itself, in its non-metaphorical representation, is an extension of our natural states – it is human. When narcissistic Nathan (Oscar Isaac) initiates a disco duet with one of his humanoids, it makes sense aesthetically – a computer programmed to replicate human behaviour – but its insinuations are less benign: dance is abstracted from its humane essence and suspended to be reclaimed, an unsettling forecast of a future where one questions to whom, or to what, dance belongs to, if it belongs anywhere at all.

Before this dance, Nathan had selected young programmer Caleb to participate in a version of the Turing test with Ava. They are isolated in Nathan’s mountain mansion, a hedonistic universe, airless and delusional in its self-proclaimed prestige. This slick set-up deteriorates as the folds of deception multiply, and Nathan’s intentions become increasingly ominous.

Intending to confront Nathan, Caleb instead finds humanoid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who begins undressing (a disconcerting reaction) before Nathan enters drunk, and commands a dance. A red light instantly soaks the not-so-cosy lounge, much like the blood that will later drench Nathan. As if Oliver Cheatham’s 1983 Get Down Saturday Night were Kyoko’s ON switch, she begins to swing her hips and point luringly at Caleb, the gormless onlooker. It couldn’t be untimelier.

This charade is Nathan’s casual assertion of authority. Rather than science jargon or physical force, he chooses a ludicrous, pre-programmed dance routine to momentarily squash Caleb’s concerns. Movement is used to manipulate and infuriate as Nathan joins in, side stepping and arm pumping. The gimmicky duet is ‘spontaneous’ but they synchronise like Wii-Dance animations, careful and with creepy body efficiency. Kyoko might sway her hips but she’s still a computer, and her wan expression reminds us so. She is not consumed by an urge to groove: this is merely a code in her software, and club dancing is just another of Nathan’s indulgent, programmed pleasures alongside sexual and domestic servitude.

The scene ends abruptly. Out of kilter with the nuanced landscape conjured thus far, its farcical presence strikes a jarring faultline halfway through the film. Kyoko’s blatant, faultless execution lacks nuance: one movement replaces another with dull surety, which only accentuates the multiplex threat of technology, especially when it appears outwardly harmless.

At the arrival of this dance, we realise we’d been craving normality beyond Nathan’s bubble, and that this is not it. And it ends with as much sentimentality as Macbook OFF button. Movement is the product of an operating system, an innovation, but somehow static in its pre-determinedness – in this reality, system errors are the extent of spontaneity. Humanoids may have curved limbs and flushed cheeks, but it is a deception. Their priority is to replicate behaviour, not feel it, a fact difficult to discard when watching a dancing AI. Or this one, anyway. Yet this intelligence originates in human creativity; the two concepts are no longer so easily distinguishable. the experiential learning that shapes a humans relationship to dance may not be authentically present in AI, but the creator can programme it to appear otherwise. Credit is given to them when the AI seems to be experiencing dance as the dynamic process that it is, a surrender to play and pleasure in movement.


Blue Quote Mark

Is the human experience of autopilot not itself a version of self-programming?

Blue Quote Mark

It’s a rabbit hole, and this brief moment of film feels like a descent into it. And I wonder about dancers, who often practice steps so well they could perform them without active thought. Is the human experience of autopilot not itself a version of self-programming? What exactly are the criteria for being a dancer? Breath in your lungs and blood in your veins seem like reasonable starting points. But wherever we look, and increasingly so, there is a screen where there was once a body. Considering the restless pace of tech substitution, it would be naïve to deny that new realities with fundamentally shifted definitions of dance are forming. In fact, we’ve probably welcomed them already. 


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