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After HUANG YI & KUKA’s incredibly modern performance a couple weeks ago, I walked out of Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center thinking back to an analog moment in the late 1960’s when a poem presaged this ideal balance between robot and human: Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”.

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

If ever there has been one, Huang Yi’s KUKA appears to be the manifestation of Brautigan’s imaginary machine. From start to finish, there was such sympathy between Huang Yi, his two dancers (Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen), and the surprisingly anthropomorphic KUKA robot. Built for tasks such as welding and packaging products for an array of industries from aerospace to pharmaceutical and food to plastics, this KUKA (which is the brand name) was put to spectacular use as a dancer, partner, videographer, and intelligent light source in this hour long work.

Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.

Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.

The show began with a downtrodden Yi sitting in a spotlight with his knees hugged in to his chest. A spare piano score chimed in as another spotlight reveals the KUKA robot next to him. As their heads begin to scan their collective environment, synchronized, the KUKA contributed a satisfying whirring sound and a pneumatic phrasing to match the man: quick and energetic on the attack of a movement, but smooth and controlled on the finish. The KUKA was an astonishingly precise and articulate mimic of Yi, which made it easy to transpose human qualities and emotions onto the robot right away. They initiated a process of getting to know each other, tracing shapes and beginning to partner with Yi’s hand, and sometimes foot, connected to the KUKA’s flat head. From there, they played a series of games: in the first one the KUKA wielded a green laser to trace and direct Yi’s body through a phrase of floor work. In the second, it pushes a folding chair across the floor to Yi so he could sit and perform a set of gestures. This same sequence was repeated in unison with the machine. Uncertainty, frustration, despair, and comedy were all communicated easily and the audience laughed a few times without self-consciously questioning whether that would be appropriate. It was.

In yet another vignette, the KUKA delivered Yi a metronome. This gift brought out the robotic side of Yi and for a few minutes there appeared to be three mechanical devices swaying in concert to keep time. Every once in awhile, Yi reached in to stop the ticking, before letting it go again to alternate between moving in sync, and then as a mirror image, to the robot and metronome. Highly satisfying and poignant repetition was at work throughout this performance (just as in Brautigan’s layered open line “I like to think”) and none of it so beautiful as during the middle section when the KUKA’s functional head, which allows for the picking up of objects, becomes a video camera lens.

After all three dancers came onstage and used tools to make the necessary change in the KUKA’s head, they left it there alone. We, the audience, then had the privilege of seeing what the KUKA saw, projected large on the backdrop. The point of view was nauseous at times, with the floor an uneven surface of constantly shifting angles. The KUKA even looked at its own body, humorously zooming in to read warning labels affixed to its base, and at us. When the same exploration went on repeat, a man was now inhabiting that volatile landscape, writhing on the floor. It seemed possible that this roiling space was just waiting for an angsty human to occupy it. In yet a third round, the sole woman found her solo place inside the tilting frame too.

Trisha Brown in Homemade. Photo by Vincent Pereira.

Almost since the dawn of the post-modern dance choreographer, humans have been trying to catch themselves dancing on film for the audience in real time. Trisha Brown’s Homemade, which I last saw at BAM in 2013, is a solo Brown made in 1966 for a woman with a projector harnessed to her back. The video expands and contracts the space the dancer occupies and places her in conversation with her image. In 2008, Deborah Lohse performed a solo with camerawoman at Dance Theater Workshop as part of the DANCE NOW Festival, to bloom, which later became Her, where a black clad videographer followed Lohse’s nude body in the near darkness, with only the light attached to the camera illuminating the architecture of her body and movements. In both cases, as with Yi, the audience was given two entry points into the dance: the stage and the screen. However rudimentary these earlier versions feel in comparison (we can’t all program a robot!), the intent feels similar: to simultaneously make the dance more intimate and more limitless. I couldn’t help but think of all these postmodern predecessors—there are so many more—as I watched this section. Yi was able to build on the sentiment that has driven such work: we all want to be known, to others and ourselves, to see and be seen, to have others understand who we are and what we see, or to be “watched over”, as Brautigan simply put it.

Hu Chien and Lin Jiu-Wen. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.

Hu Chien and Lin Jiu-Wen. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff.

After such a powerful visual statement, the transition back to the KUKA’s original head and the following duet between Chien and Jou-Wen, illuminated by the KUKA, felt like a variation on a theme that I didn’t necessarily need. Dressed formally and sitting stiff in chairs facing each other, with the KUKA upstage and in between them, Chien and Jou-Wen appeared to be dolls going through the motions of gestures, hugs, and small partnered lifts. While there was an eerie sense that Yi, who was no longer onstage, was somehow present in the KUKA, as it manipulated the two dancers with a red laser this time, there was something trite in the heterosexual setup after all of the strange longing of the previous few sections. It may have also been the music, which became highly recognizable (though it went uncited in the program so I am not totally sure what it was) and melodic for the first time in the show. Ultimately, the tenor of their staccato exchange softened and they melted into each other as the stage cut to black.

Yi, a native of Taiwan, claims in his artistic statement “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.” When I first read Brautigan’s poem as a teenager, in the early days of cell phones and rough cut email, it did just that. The poem affected me with its “expression of loneliness, self-doubt, self-realization, and self-comfort” in its uses of self-conscious parentheticals, demanding exclamation points, and modern pastoral imagery. But I couldn’t totally wrap my head around the surreal world he imagined, it was just more of a yearning feeling. Yi seems to have heard this poem in the womb and landed on this planet in order to fabricate such dreams.

 

Click here for more on this season’s [email protected] programming.

 

Written by Candice Thompson

After more than a decade in Brooklyn, Candice Thompson is now an Atlanta-based artist and writer. Prior to dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and ad hoc Ballet, she trained with Kee Juan Han at the School of Ballet Arizona and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She founded LOLAstretch Dancewear in 2000 and has designed costumes for a variety of theater and dance companies across the country. She recently received a masters degree in Literary Nonfiction from Columbia University’s Creative Writing Program and more of her dance writing can be found in the pages of Dance Magazine, Pointe, and Dance Teacher.