Huang Yi and KUKA in Huang Yi & KUKA Photo Jacob Blickenstaff

Huang Yi and KUKA in Huang Yi & KUKA
Photo Jacob Blickenstaff

The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center,
University of Maryland, College Park, MD
September 25, 2015

Carmel Morgan

In our increasingly mechanized society, it should be no surprise that choreographers have looked to machines for creative inspiration. More surprising perhaps is that they are using machines as featured dancers. In Dance of the Cranes, part of this summer’s DC’s Capital Fringe Festival, Brandon Vickerd choreographed high-rise construction cranes set to music, the pair moving in synchrony, turning in opposite directions, lifting, and ultimately seemingly taking a shallow bow. I was only slightly intrigued. Cranes have a pretty limited movement vocabulary.

Huang Yi & KUKA (黃翊與庫卡), a work by Taiwanese choreographer and dancer Huang Yi (黃翊) and his robot partner KUKA, is very intriguing indeed. KUKA, an advanced industrial robot, is able to move in a fashion that more closely resembles human movement. Although slow-paced, the work is suspenseful, thoughtful, and well composed. One cannot help attributing emotions to KUKA, even though the robot is simply executing a complex series of commands (which we are told could take up to twenty hours per minute of dance to program). Indeed, part of the pleasure in watching is becoming aware of the ways in which our minds assign meaning and emotional content to various actions.

The classical music (Bach, Mozart) used stands in captivating contrast to the modern buzzing and humming sounds KUKA makes. The stage remains quite dark throughout, like a dimly lit alternate universe. In that world, Huang Yi, who wears a dark suit, and KUKA, who is largely orange and arranged like a long multi-jointed arm, befriend each other and trade gestures. They use small lights to illuminate each other and the space. In the timing and shape of KUKA’s movements, one senses hesitation and shyness as the two are introduced. One further imagines exchanged glances, curiosity, skepticism, and ultimately friendship. When Huang Yi and KUKA eventually touch each other (their proximity would be forbidden in an industrial setting, as stickers at the base of KUKA illustrate), you feel a genuine connection is being made.

Much of the beauty in the choreography comes from simplicity and stillness. There are plenty of rewards, as well, in seeing KUKA and Huang Yi move lyrically together in mirror image fashion. Magically, almost, KUKA can glide like a human torso or a serpent or the neck of a giraffe reaching for a leaf from a tree. Similarly, one becomes increasingly conscious of the mechanical nature of our human bodies and our own movement limitations. In one sequence, Huang Yi leans against KUKA, and KUKA actually pushes back, creating a true dynamic partnership.

In another section, dancers Hu Chien (胡鑑) and Lin Jou-wen (林柔雯), wearing timeless black and white, take on the movement style of automatons. KUKA, sitting behind them, appears to direct their actions, slicing the air between them with a red laser. Like mechanical dolls from Coppélia, the dancers seem to lack real emotion. They strongly suggest human frailty in their awkward attempts to establish an intimate relationship with each other. Strikingly, their initial communication parallels that of Huang Yi and KUKA from earlier in the work. One senses the same shy hesitation, then relief when the two dancers finally embrace.

During a conversation with the enrapt audience after the performance, Huang Yi revealed that on stage he feels he is his true self, and the rest of the time he feels like an actor. He also explained that due to KUKA’s specific constraints, and unlike many dance partners, KUKA cannot lift him. He readily offered that Jiří Kylián and William Forsythe have served as inspirations, and that he purposefully elected to use the music from Kylian’s Petit Mort (Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 21 and 23) in his work with KUKA. Finally, he said that he often feels like he is a tool being used by others (family, corporations, etc.), and so he did not want KUKA to be a human-looking robot. Rather, his choreography involves one tool dancing with another.