When one thinks of watching a show with a big, laser-wielding robot, one likely thinks of some kind of science fiction thriller movie. KUKA, the eponymous robotic star of HUANG YI & KUKA, is probably more of a threat to your job than to your body, though, as it is an incredibly fast and dexterous industrial robot mounted on a static platform with six joints and the ability to be retooled in about five minutes (which was demonstrated twice on stage). And under the direction of Huang Yi, you’re more likely to feel inspired than threatened.
When I bought tickets to this performance, I was hopeful that it would rise above the level of mere gimmickry and cliché to be something more meaningful and creative but I was fully prepared to just enjoy a freakin’ robot with lasers dancing with people if it didn’t. My hopes for a great show, though, were not only met but exceeded. Huang Yi used KUKA as a tool of genuine expression rather than just a novelty. His choreography went beyond dance with a robot that happens to be there doing its thing:it made full use of both the capabilities of his dancers and the capabilities of the robot to achieve a very cohesive and coherent whole.
The piece began with a sense of mystery: a man lying in a box of light and a robot. Both creatures began to look around and explore their surroundings, with KUKA’s perceptions implied by the pointing of a flashlight held in its hand. After looking around the room, the two seemed to check each other out: to meet and get to know each other. This moved into a segment where they took turns controlling each other by shining light on each other and, at one point, KUKA seemed to be guiding Huang with a green laser, the beam of which was visible thanks to a non-overwhelming amount of stage smoke blown onto the stage. Perhaps conducting or directing would be a better word for what was going on than controlling, though, as there was more of a sense that the movements of both entities were a response to the lights rather than controlled by them.
A particularly interesting segment found Huang, having been offered a chair by KUKA, sitting under a spot light and performing a series of gestures to the accompaniment of a violin sonata (Bach, I’m pretty sure) while KUKA was in the dark. His movements seemed to imply that he might be completing some kind of manual task, though it was more abstract than pantomime. After completing this choreography, he began again, this time with KUKA, still in the dark, moving along with him so that the movements coincided with the sound of KUKA’s servos humming. This made it look even more as though he were working in a factory or some such setting. A third repetition had KUKA lit and the sonata playing again, this time making the movements look like part of duet as KUKA’s movements complimented those done by Huang.
The most moving movement of the performance began with KUKA pulling out a mechanical metronome, set to the slowest setting, which Huang set into motion. The two seemed fascinated by the movement of the device, as though they were being introduced to the concept of time, moving with it and occasionally stopping it with their hands. After a bit, Huang stood up and began dancing a kind of ballroom-dance-inspired choreography with KUKA, the two seeming to have figured out what do with time. After a moment of this, though, Huang began to seem frail, relying on KUKA to get back to his seat as though he had aged significantly. The two watched the metronome together until Huang slowly left the stage, as though having died and left KUKA alone as the metronome slowly ran out of momentum and came to a stop. KUKA, seemingly confused by this, tried to start the metronome again, giving the arm a nudge, and looking up expectantly for Huang, now long gone. As the last few ticks of the metronome sounded, KUKA tried again to get it started but couldn’t and then looked sorrowfully up to where Huang should have been, as though not understanding human decay. It was so moving that I became a little choked up.
After a very fast retooling, KUKA now had a camera on his arm that he used to check out Huang and the audience and the stage. The camera fed into a projection on the backdrop of the stage. Huang performed some simple choreography facing stage right into the camera in such a way that a giant image of his actions from head on was projected behind him while we watched him from the side. The aesthetic effects of this portion managed to be pretty interesting. Even more interesting was what happened once he left: KUKA used the camera to look at various rectangles of light on the floor of the stage, panning, zooming, and rotating continuously so that the floor seemed to be dancing on the screen behind it.
Before this managed to get old, two other dancers, Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen, alternated coming onto the stage and performing some very severe choreography within the lighted rectangles. Although their choreography seemed abstract, it seemed to present a sense of struggle and KUKA seemed to be watching it, not knowing what to make of human tribulation.
After another retooling to put the hand back on KUKA, Huang performed a very beautiful duet with it. There was nothing special about this beyond the fact that it was a very beautiful piece of concert dance that was performed between a human and a robot without seeming like anything more than a beautiful duet. At this point, it became clear that the robot could be seen as a full partner in dance and not just a prop.
The finale brought Hu and Lin back, seated in chairs before KUKA. KUKA began by shining a light on them, as though watching them. As the light would hit one or the other, they would engage in jerky, mechanical motions, as though they were part of an animatronic display. KUKA then switched to a red laser, which he used to guide the movements of the two in a much more intentional and fluid fashion, much in the same what that KUKA itself moves.
What was amazing about this piece, and the whole show, was the timing involved. KUKA’s programming required that all human interventions follow the exact same timing every single performance or risk being out of sync. Considering the detail of the interactions, this was no small feat: in an artist’s talk afterward, Huang said that they spent around 20 hours rehearsing for every minute on the stage. KUKA is an industrial robot that could easily sweep all three of them aside at once without losing momentum and they were interacting with it in a way that made it seem that KUKA was responding to them or gently touching them, so I can really believe that it took that much work to put these pieces together.
Also notable was the use of light. When performing artists produce their own light from the stage, it usually doesn’t work that well. Even when it’s not that bad it’s still usually not quite as good at complimenting the action on the stage as a professional lighting design would be. Here, though, Huang’s use of light was well considered and masterfully evocative.
Also of note was that the use of projected images actually worked. This rarely happens. Rarely. Very rarely. Usually when someone tries to incorporate projected images in a performance piece what really happens is that they either direct attention away from the performers or they break up the lines of the performers in a way that makes it harder for the eyes to track them (this is a basic principle of camouflage, in fact). What’s more, it’s usually just a cheap gimmick, making up for the inability of the artist to express something through the performance piece or their insecurity of the artist in their ability to create an interesting piece of work solely on the bodies of their performers. Huang’s use, however, worked and was genuinely interesting and clever and, best of all, he didn’t over do it.
I thought that this whole concert was amazing. I’m in awe at the fact that Huang could create such strong choreography with humans and a robot without falling back on clichés or just letting the novelty of it all drive the work. I might almost compare his work with KUKA to Paganini’s capriccios, which served as exemplars of what a violin could really do: Huang showed what a choreographer could really do with a robot. Should dancers worry about losing their jobs to robots? I wouldn’t quite go on a rampage, touting the example of King Ludd. However, learning how to create an EMP device might not be a bad idea.