It goes without saying that any form of the performing arts is based on technique, on learning and perfecting the physical method of doing things. Once the technique is perfected much more important ingredients are added in order to turn the performance into art – the human soul and personality. So, can a machine that has been programmed to move in a certain way, to interact and respond, be art? Taiwanese dancer and choreographer Huang Yi presents us with the opportunity to judge for ourselves.
His partner for the evening was not a slim-thighed ballerina with pointe shoes and a tutu but a large industrial robot, the sort we have all seen making cars. After their initial getting-to-know-each-other phase of hesitant approaches, a relationship develops. The robot seemed to sniff at the heels of its human companion like a curious dog, to stretch out a metallic digit to touch and feel its new friend.
I would hesitate in calling the robot . . . oh, it had a name, KUKA . . . an artist but it (he/she?) certainly had a character. It was like a giant reptile, or like one of those benevolent goofy dinosaurs one sees in children’s cartoon films. But there was always menace lurking in the shadows, like a giant dentist’s drill ready to cause pain at a moment’s notice. Apparently, there were safety issues when Huang Li first obtained the articulated machine from the manufacturers whereby regulations stated that, and I quote, human beings could not enter its area of action.
But overall it seemed a nice, friendly type of robot and it could be said to have had a personality of sorts. In fact, it had rather more personality than Mr Yi. That is not a criticism and he would probably take it as a compliment as he claims his avowed intent as a child was to grow up to be like a robot with no personality.
Dressed in a smart, dark blue suit and always in dim lighting, it was rarely possible to see his face and certainly not easy to discern any emotion or reaction. It was often difficult to see much of KUKA either as it was frequently shining a light into the eyes of the audience and was, at times, poorly lit itself. Occasionally I became a bit frustrated, straining to see what was going on in the gloom.
The sequence when a live video camera was attached to the end of the robot’s lone hydraulic limb was by far the most successful and many of the early interactions between it and Huang Yi were equally pleasing, bordering, as they did, on tenderness.
However, some of the seventy minute performance was less successful. It was a pity more could not have been made of the rather arbitrary and unimaginative lighting – the monotonous, constant murkiness and two single spotlights pointing straight down tended to become annoying.
Huang Yi was joined at the end by two other dancers, Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen and it was they who closed the show, sitting on two chairs facing each other in near darkness with KUKA hovering in the background.
I don’t know if it was by chance that this highly technical and unusual show took place in Delft, home of the TU, one of the foremost technical universities in Europe. It would not have surprised me to see eager students surreptitiously scribbling on the back of their programmes, jotting down ideas for their own future projects.
While the performance was not a total success it was certainly not a failure. The concept and presentation were original and worthwhile and there were several moments of brilliance, innovation and yes, even art. Michael Hasted 2nd February 2018
Listen to our exclusive interview with Huang Yi from the stage of the Theater de Veste in Delft