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Taiwanese dancer, choreographer, inventor and videographer Huang Yi’s pioneering work is steeped in his fascination with the partnership between humans and robots. He interweaves continuous movement with mechanical and multimedia elements to create a form of dance that corresponds with the flow of data, making the performance a dancing instrument. Huang was immersed in the arts at a young age, spending much of his childhood in his parents’ studio watching them teach tango and learning to paint alongside his father.
Huang’s works have been seen at the Ars Electronica Festival (Austria), the Joyce Theater (New York), Engien-Les-Bain Centre des Arts (France), on Cloud Gate 2 (Taipei) and the American Dance Festival (North Carolina). He holds an MFA degree from the Graduate School of Dance Choreography of Taipei, National University of the Arts. He was awarded the second prize in the Cross Connection Ballet International Choreography Competition in Copenhagen in 2010 and first prize in the digital performance competition at the Digital Arts Center, Taipei, in 2010 and 2012. In 2011, Huang was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch.”
In Huang Yi and KUKA, an evening-length piece, Huang dances with a German-made industrial robot used in making cars and iPhones, among other consumer products. For the piece he programmed the robot and its swiveling, whirring bright orange single-armed appendage, taking about 20 hours to make one minute of movement, then choreographed his own movements to dance with KUKA, his robot.
ICONS: How did you get a robot? You can’t go to the local store and just buy one.
Huang: I googled it. I liked the design of KUKA and the name KUKA. It sounds like a cat: cute. It’s really cute. I bought it [with proceeds from a choreographic competition he won]. It weighs 275 kilos, has its own computer and its own programming language.
ICONS: When you dance and choreograph with an inanimate object like KUKA, are you conveying that there is humanity and emotion in iron and steel?
Huang: I’m trying … to dance with KUKA. It is like dancing with a puppet. A puppet has no life. No temperature. It has no real soul inside, but it moves like [a] human. Sometimes it has more emotion than [a] human. Like when a kid says something that an adult would say. There’s a strange feeling when I dance with KUKA.
ICONS: So, in this strangeness do you feel a soul, do you feel a human-like connection, as we do here right now, sitting face-to-face
Huang: Yes. … I believe he will lead me when I forget my movement sometimes. When I stand there, when I watch him and I’m listening to the music … I stand in front of him [and] he starts to lead me to some movement [that] maybe I forgot. It’s really a strange thing.
ICONS: What does it say about us as humans, and about our technological world, when objects have a soul or when we believe that they have the soul?
Huang: In the East, culturally, we believe there are many gods in items. When I was little and I would drop something, I believed it would feel hurt. So I really relate to many things that have no real soul; I imagine if I was [the object] and what I would feel. In my other works, sometimes I dance with tables, sometimes I dance with everyday items. That’s the way I relate to items or objects.
ICONS: What are you working on now?
Huang: Two new works. One is called “Under the Horizons,” the other is called “Objects.” [There] I’m using speakers and items’ sounds. When I’m shifting the speakers, it sounds like the human bodies produce the items’ sounds.
ICONS: What advice can you give to the young choreographer?
[Huang remains quiet for a long time.]
Huang: If you want to have your own studio, learn accounting. It might not sound very romantic but it’s important.
And, if you want to program something with a non-dancer or that is technology related, like this project is, or something that is very, very complicated, you really have to know that [skill]. Of course, you have to learn new things, to make [your project] actually come true, so you have to know how you are going to acquire [that skill]. Accounting, that’s just basic.
Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater and the arts for numerous publications and is communications director for Dance ICONS.