The Nutcracker ballet features a wooden nutcracker that comes to life, but that seems like child’s play compared with dancer-choreographer Huang Yi’s work. His dancing partner is a 2,000-pound industrial robot named KUKA that comes to life in a mechanical but almost human way.
They make their Atlanta debut at the Ferst Center for the Arts on October 1 as part of a week-long residency at Georgia Tech.
Huang Yi & KUKA is set to music by various composers, including Bach and Arvo Pärt. It opens with Yi and the robot dancing together. By the end of the work, KUKA becomes the choreographer and uses a laser beam to manipulate two dancers who are seated in chairs on a dimly lit stage.
Yi, 31, spends thousands of hours programming the robot’s movements, many of which are eerily lifelike. He learned basic programming skills as a 15-year-old student, and in the years since has taught himself the engineering necessary to make KUKA dance just the way he wants him to.
“With dancers, you tell them something and (what they do) isn’t exactly what you imagined,” he says via Skype from his home in Taipei. He speaks through an interpreter. “It may be worse, it may be better. KUKA will do exactly what you tell him.”
When Yi works with dancers, he likes to collaborate “because they have their own personalities. It’s too cold to treat people like robots.”
Born in Taiwan, Yi grew up a lonely child in a wealthy family beset by bankruptcy and suicide attempts, and his view of other humans is, well, pessimistic. “When humans interact, it’s about how much advantage they can acquire from each other,” he says. “People treat each other like tools. (Working with KUKA) is a purer form of working with another creature, even though it’s not human.”
His parents owned a ballroom studio where he learned to tango and samba. He couldn’t decide between a career in dance and one in the visual arts, but eventually chose dance and trained in Chinese opera, ballet and modern dance. It was his success at the Digital Arts Festival Taipei, however, that brought him and KUKA together.
He won first prize and a sponsorship, which gave him the opportunity to develop his interest in combining human and non-human movement.
Yi’s current U.S. tour, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan, also includes residencies at the University of Maryland and the University of California, San Diego (where he’ll interact with their dance departments) and Indiana’s Purdue University.
At Georgia Tech, he’ll engage with students and faculty who are exploring music technology, artificial intelligence in robots, and the interaction between computers and humans.
You could argue that Yi’s work is more about engineering than dance, but his work clearly moves people. When Madison Cario, the new director of Georgia Tech’s Office of the Arts, first saw the work she says she was “completely blown away with the purity of the connection between the KUKA and Huang Yi. It was just gorgeous. I was surprised in a really good way. It moved me to tears.” And when Yi’s fractured family saw his performances in Taiwan, they were inspired to find ways to heal old wounds.
Dance. Music. Engineering. What it means to be human. Huang Yi & KUKA is ambitious in both its themes and in its execution. The piece will be performed Thursday, October 1 at 11 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. and Friday, October 2 at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. The daytime matinees are open to school groups at reduced prices.