Duet between man and life-like robot

Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi finds comfort in his robot Kuka.
Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi finds comfort in his robot Kuka.PHOTO: THE ESPLANADE

In an increasingly mechanised society, it comes as no surprise that a man would find comfort and creativity in a machine. This is the premise of Huang Yi & Kuka, a chronicle of the friendship between Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi and his robot Kuka. 

He writes poignantly in the programme notes about identifying his young self in Kuka. A turbulent childhood had reduced him from child to robot, devoid of curiosity, playfulness and emotion. 

However, Kuka is no human replica. Its orange crane-like structure atop a broad base would rightfully belong in a factory assembly line. But Huang has meticulously, perhaps miraculously, programmed Kuka to dance, giving it life beyond its mere function.

Extending and twisting with a peculiar elegance, Kuka mirrors Huang's movements, both large and small. Although comprised of metal instead of muscle, it asks to be ascribed with a clear physicality and persona. Seeming to bow its head and crane its neck, Kuka is imbued with a beguiling humanity.

Yet it is shrouded in murky lighting for most of the work, concealing the graceful mechanics.

The duet between man and robot progresses to one of mutual trust and dependence. As his leg slices through the air, Huang veers off balance, pressing his palm against Kuka for support. He dips as though to cradle Kuka's chin, lifting it in encouragement. 

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A delicate intimacy is established between the pair, but is never allowed to bloom due to the work's start-stop nature. Littered with false endings and cumbersome technical adjustments, the hour- long production feels much longer. There are extended moments of stillness which lack suspense and the pace is tiresomely slow throughout the performance.

Two other dancers are perplexingly introduced to the piece in its latter half, distracting from the intrigue of the central partnership between two misfits. 

Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen both perform dynamic solos before coming together in the final scene. Seated facing each other, they raise their arms spasmodically to embrace each other while Kuka shines a red laser beam between them. Separating their bodies, it causes them to sink back onto their chairs.

While the scene is hypnotic, it is difficult to place in the context of the initial premise of Huang Yi & Kuka. Similarly, Huang achieves some stunning effects in his experiments with technology, attaching various tools such as torches and a camera to Kuka during the show. But these seem to be randomly included in the work's various vignettes and cause it to lose its way.  Perhaps the same can be said for Man's interaction with technology - we chase the new and bold, but what do we leave behind?

The precious, unrivalled beauty of simplicity. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 15, 2016, with the headline 'Duet between man and life-like robot'. Print Edition | Subscribe