It’s hard to resist a dancing robot. Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi‘s dance piece Huang Yi & KUKA, currently having its US premiere at New York’s 3LD Art and Technology Center, shows that it’s also very hard to share the stage with a robot — especially one that benefits from much more compelling choreography than its human co-performers. Huang’s piece showcases the incredible speed, agility, and charm of its star performer, a bright orange KUKA robot, but shortchanges its flesh-and-bone dancers with uninspired and overly repetitive movements. A more appropriate title would have been “KUKA & Friends.”
Technically, the performance is astonishing. The robot itself required a full four months of on-site programming and rehearsal. That most demanding and conspicuous technical element makes the hour-long performance’s lighting seem elementary by comparison, but it is similarly high-tech and essential to the piece’s sleek, minimalist aesthetic. Staged in a foggy black box theater, Huang Yi & KUKA involves minimal props — a chair that KUKA endearingly nudges toward Huang, various light and camera appendages for the robot — and a great deal of precision. When all the parts are clicking and ticking, the performance combines a kind of technophilic existentialism with the delight of watching something simultaneously otherworldly and obviously man-made whirring to life. How far we’ve come from the days when Nam June Paik struggled to pilot a rickety robot across an Upper East Side intersection only to have it mercilessly run over by a raging driver.
What’s less astonishing is Huang Yi & KUKA‘s human contingent. Much of Huang’s choreography for himself, Hu Chien, and Lin Jou-Wen feels generic, especially by the third time they repeat it. The performance’s four acts, tellingly, are best distinguished by the robot’s shifting roles. In the first, equipped with a flashlight, it serves as a spotlight, a kind of 21st-century Pixar lamp. In the second act, mounted with a camera linked to an overhead projector, it plays cameraman to Hu and Lin’s contorting movements in dynamic projections. In the third, KUKA and Huang perform an endearing duet that, if one of the dance partners weren’t an industrial robot adapted for onstage use, would be much less interesting. For the final act, the robot plays puppeteer as Hu and Lin move like marionettes struggling to embrace. Each of these acts features sharp ideas and gripping movements, but they are continually dulled by overuse.
Outfitting KUKA with a camera, for instance, is a brilliant move. Huang forces the audience to continually choose between watching the image projected onto the theater’s back wall — the dance, as it is being “seen” by the robot — and the actual dancer on stage, a provocative formal choice. But having the robot go through the exact same sequence of movements three times in a row, shooting the empty spotlights, Hu, and then Lin, detracts from the number’s inventiveness. The formulaic nature of the dancers’ movements amplifies this issue. Save for portions of Huang’s duets with the robot and the final, puppet-master section, there is frustratingly little to distinguish the choreography from any other piece of modern dance. This is especially glaring when placed alongside the impossibly novel movements of a high-tech robot. The performance would be much more powerful if it were half as long.
Luckily, Huang Yi & KUKA‘s star is a laser-and camera-wielding robot with style to spare. The show ultimately succeeds because of this, and Huang’s strong aesthetic sense. The real challenge will come when (if ever) the robot’s novelty wears off, and the stiffness of the choreography becomes harder to ignore. In the meantime, I, for one, welcome our new dancing robots.