The boundaries between humans and machines were blurred in the world premiere of ‘Scary Beauty’ – a show I can only describe as disturbingly odd.
Performed as part of ‘Meeting Points’ (a day long programme which aimed to bridge the cultural gap between Asian and Australian music) ‘Scary Beauty’ was an experimental opera piece composed by Japanese composer Keiichiro Shibuya and featured the Australian Art Orchestra. Oh... And it was performed by Skeleton – currently one of the most sophisticated robots in the world.
As I got my first glimpse of Skeleton I couldn’t help but think about how perfectly the show’s title suited it. With its thin metallic body and ghostlike face and hands, Skeleton has its own neural network which mimics the human brain, allowing it to control its limbs and facial expressions with the help of electronic sensors. The result is a creepy looking human/machine hybrid which is both scary and beautiful to behold. Although seemingly androgynous, Skeleton’s full lips and delicately lifelike facial features are almost feminine and there was even a hint of chubbiness in its porcelain white cheeks.
At the beginning of the show, Skeleton launched into the first of three sombre pieces which explored what it means to be human. Its heavily digitised voice immediately brought to mind the sounds of 'Alvin And The Chipmunks' and unfortunately it was incredibly distorted – which made it hard to determine what language Skeleton was singing in. Equally disappointing was the unnecessarily loud volume of the orchestra music which reverberated around the Space Theatre, often drowning out Skeleton completely.
As Skeleton sang, the lyrics to each song were projected (in English) onto a screen behind the orchestra; but between the white subtitles and the bright stage lighting they were quite hard to see (not to mention the fact that the placement of the screen meant that, depending on where you were sitting, you had to look away from the stage to read). Skeleton’s face often lit up as it sang, alternating between soft shades of light which perfectly illuminated it’s incredibly human-like features and blinding blasts of white which forced you to look away or risk permanent damage to your eyesight.
For me, the most haunting part of the show was when Skeleton, with its oddly chipmunk-like voice began talking about self-awareness – quoting an excerpt from Yukio Mishima’s 'The Decay Of The Angel'. Unfortunately the power of this moment was lost as Skeleton began to babble incoherently, flailing its arms about as though it was malfunctioning – a confusing piece which turned out to be the show’s final number.
There is something almost ethereal about the idea of attending a show performed by a robot; the entire concept seems like something out of a science fiction movie and I’ll admit to feeling a little anxious as I took my seat. As the show wore on that anxiousness was quickly replaced with curiosity and confusion and it’s safe to say I have never experienced anything like this before. While it was definitely a unique way to spend a Saturday night I’m not sure it’s an experience I’ll be ready to repeat anytime soon.