One of the most interesting and just plain coolest things you can find on any stage this year is choreographer Huang Yi‘s engagement with the robotics age with his new show Huang Yi & Kuka, now at New York City’s 3LD Art & Technology Center through Feb. 17, produced by Huang Yi Studio + and co-produced by 3-Legged Dog. I’m not a dance critic, but this looked to be something that shouldn’t be missed. Having seen it, I feel safe in saying that this set of dance pieces featuring Huang Yi, two other human dancers, and a startlingly expressive industrial robot from the Taiwanese company KUKA is something utterly new and original.
KUKA is essentially a man-sized arm mounted on a platform, with several 360-degree joints and a versatile tip that can be fitted with various tools. Huang Yi outfits KUKA with a grasper with which it (actually the tendency is to use the word “him”) holds in some sequences a flashlight or a laser pointer. The robot’s programming makes it-him move like a smart, expressive animal: duplicating a human dancer’s movements, communicating silently with gestures and “looks,” and later interacting by touch. In one sequence the grasping “hand” is replaced by a projection video camera which KUKA uses to project images of patches of light on the bare floor in shifting, swooping angles, then of human dancers moving in those lit areas.
Maybe the most inventive sequence in purely choreographic terms has two dancers interacting haltingly, as if under a strobe light, enacting something suggestive of a tragic love story in folding chairs as a seemingly curious KUKA plays with them with beams from a laser pointer.
In another intriguing dance Huang Yi and KUKA move to the slow ticking of an old-fashioned mechanical metronome. KUKA is programmed so precisely that he-it can touch and stop the metronome’s tiny swaying arm. The device stands in for the life of the robot’s cherished human companion. As the hunched-over human dancer, enacting the movements of an old man, slowly shuffles off the stage, the metronome stops, leaving KUKA alone and bereft. While other sequences move to music by Bach or Mozart or modern compositions, in this one the only sounds are the metronome’s timekeeping and the whirring of KUKA’s twisting movements, a sound which at first seems mechanical but comes to feel as natural as the sound of the human dancers’ feet sliding along the ground.
Typically we assume that as robots become more human-like in behavior they will also come nearer to human form. Huang Yi and KUKA prove that a robot has no need to be an android to simulate human movements and emotions. After the lengthy opening number in which man and robot dance in parallel, they take a bow together, a memorable moment that challenges us to recognize not the god but the human in the machine.
3-Legged Dog’s Executive Artistic Director Kevin Cunningham announced at the start that each minute of KUKA’s programming takes 10 hours of work, and Huang Yi has been developing this piece for four months. But only runs for one week. Grab tickets now while you can.