HUANG YI & KUKA

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, March 16

HuangKuka

Huang Yi and a robotic KUKA in New York in 2015. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

As a child, Huang Yi longed for a robotic companion. In his 2013 work, HUANG YI & KUKA he dances with one.

The Taiwanese dancer/choreographer was born into a wealthy family. But, as he explains in the show’s program, when he was 10, investment losses led to his parents going bankrupt, forcing them to move from a luxurious home to a small room.

Witnessing his parents’ distress, Yi felt that he needed to be the perfect child and became emotionally detached. His favourite cartoon was the Japanese manga series Doraemon, which featured a robotic cat that solved all its owner’s problems.

Says Yi: “For me, HUANG YI & KUKA is a process of beautifying the sorrow and sadness when I grew up. It is the expression of loneliness, self-doubt, self-realization, and self-comfort. I was trying to make a beautiful illusion just to assure others that everything was fine. I wanted to remind us of our simplest hope from the very beginning, that we are all just grown up kids, but still kids.”

KUKA (named after the German robotics company that manufactures it) is very obviously a machine – a big, orange, robotic, mechanical arm designed for factory work that sits on a solid black base. This particular robot is apparently a KR16-2 model and was provided by KUKA Australia. But its long spine is very flexible – it can spin around and undulate – and as Yi interacts with it, the results are surprisingly touching.

The piece opens with Yi sitting up slowly in a square of light (a lovely image), while KUKA creates its own field of light with a torch it holds. The work unfolds in semi-darkness with Yi and the robot illuminated by spotlights. Sometimes KUKA uses its torch and sometimes a green or red laser.

In the first three sections, Yi – who is a lovely dancer – interacts with the robot. He reaches towards it and dances in and around it; at other times he sits a little way off on a chair.

Their movement frequently mirrors each other with a surprising similarity: the ripple of a spine, the spin of an arm, a gentle touch of the hand. Increasingly, the robot feels like a curious, sensate being, even though we are always aware of the clank, buzz and hiss as it moves. At times it resembles a giant bird.

These sections have a bittersweet air of melancholia. The music by Arvo Pärt and Mozart among others (it’s a shame the program didn’t list the music used) contributes to the emotion in no small measure.

HuangKuka2

Lin Jou-Wen and Hu Chien. Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff

In the final section, two other dancers – Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen – sit on two chairs facing each other in front of the robot. Their jerky movement suggests mechanical humans being manipulated by KUKA and its laser. The inference is that there is a fine line between us controlling technology and technology increasingly controlling us.

Given that it apparently takes around 10 hours to program one minute of robotic movement, HUANG YI & KUKA is an amazing achievement and clearly an act of love on Yi’s part though the work does feel over-extended, particularly a section with a metronome.

The Everest Theatre is not an ideal venue. The work cries out for a more intimate setting and because it’s performed in half-light some had trouble seeing. Sitting near the back of the theatre, my plus one struggled to make out parts of it and found the experience frustrating.

On the other hand, I was charmed by so many little moments – the way the robot delicately tips a chair towards Yi, for example – and found much of it beguilingly beautiful.

HUANG YI & KUKA plays at the Seymour Centre until March 19. Bookings: www.seymour.com or 02 9351 7940

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