THE SALON AUTOMATON created and directed by Nathalie Claude, with Claude, Moynan King, Leni Parker and Clinton Walker. Presented by Momentum and Buddies in Bad Times at Buddies (12 Alexander). Opens Tuesday (December 1) and runs to December 12, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm (no show December 8). $15-$29. 416-975-8555. See listing.
Nathalie Claude's mother must never have told her to stop playing with dolls.[rssbreak]
The Quebec artist has been working with them passionately for the past several years, creating The Salon Automaton.
It's subtitled "a performance for one flesh-and-blood actress and three life-like robots."
I first met Claude in 2006 at Buddies. She was excited about a recent trip touring European museums to look at automatons, lifelike, moving models of people and animals. She talked in a workshop about devising a production based on such figures.
Claude premiered the piece in French and has spent the past year working with Moynan King to translate it into English.
"I remember as a girl in Montreal seeing an oversized automaton, a figure called the Big Laughing Woman, who'd move her arms and laugh deeply," recalls Claude, demonstrating the action and the voice. "I was both terrified and fascinated by her, and of course I thought she was real. Then I discovered that though she looked human, she wasn't."
The artist was also curious about the attraction of such figures, some of which date back to the 17th century.
"The golden age of automatons was between 1850 and 1914, when thousands of people would line up to see ones that would pick up a pen and write, or drink from a glass. Viewers were both shocked and mesmerized by what they saw. Bourgeois people bought the models as showpieces for their homes."
But a philosophical concept underpins Claude's interest in automatons.
"The show I've created deals with the relationship between humans and machines, between eventual death and everlasting life. Automatons survive their creators; I've seen 400-year-old examples. That was another inspiration for my work."
In The Salon Automaton, Claude plays a hostess entertaining three guests: a cabaret artist, a dandy poet and a drinking patroness.
"The patroness supports the arts, the cabaret performer offers lower-class entertainment and the poet is both articulate and pedantic; Colette inspired the cabaret artist and the poet has something Proustian about him."
Voiced here by Leni Parker, King and Clinton Walker, these automatons aren't the mechanical clockwork beings of earlier centuries, but rather sophisticated machines that rely on computers and electric motors. It took years for robotics designer Simon Laroche and designer Raymond Marius Boucher to create them with Claude's input.
"I want the audience to engage with the trio and forget that they are mechanical figures. Until I worked with Simon and Raymond, I thought I could only realize my fantasy if I had a budget the size of Cirque du Soleil's.
"I insisted that all the movements must be as realistic as the voices. It took hours to get the precise actions, and I especially worked to have their eyes look into mine, even though they are glass.
"I need that kind of connection with my fellow performers."