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No ordinary robot: Huang Yi & his robot KUKA

An industrial robot turns into a dance partner.

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Published: 11 Jan 2016


Time taken : ~10mins

Born in Germany, KUKA is no ordinary robot. KUKA was made for industrial purposes—robots like him typically perform one single movement on a manufacturing production line, in factories all around the world.

Sponsored by Taiwan's Quanta Arts Foundation, KUKA became an inseparable dance partner to acclaimed Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi, who used KUKA to push the boundaries of dance and robotics, exploring the interaction between humanity and technology. As a child, Huang Yi longed for a robot companion. As an adult, he created a robot to dance with.

Just how does this relationship work? It’s an intimate one that is as precise as it is unique.

For instance, KUKA has a set of movements using a torchlight and laser, which requires intense calibration. An inaccuracy of more than 1.5mm means that the show cannot proceed smoothly! Before each show, the crew thus waits patiently for about an hour before preparing for the show, as Huang Yi carefully calibrates each position on KUKA.

To find out more about Huang Yi and his robot pal, we speak to the choreographer about their partnership and plans moving forward.

How would you describe your relationship with KUKA?

KUKA is like an extension of myself. When I dance with KUKA it feels as if I am looking in a mirror. So even though KUKA is a robot, watching KUKA dance allows me, for the first time, to stand outside of myself and watch myself dance.

Tell us more about the process of working with KUKA, an industrial robot, from programming to rehearsal and performance. What were the challenges and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge was having to be the software programmer, choreographer and dancer all at the same time. For example, I would complete a set of movements as a dancer. Then I would have to switch to become a programmer to code the routine into KUKA, while at the same time objectively analysing the movements through the eyes of a choreographer. So this is a very different process from a production purely based on dance because of the many additional steps involved.

I also had to adjust my body to adapt to this constant switching of roles. Whenever I stopped dancing to programme KUKA, my body could have cooled down. So it took me a long time to find the best way of working with these conditions in the rehearsal process.

We understand that as a safety precaution, there is a robotics regulation that states that humans should not enter the robot's area of action when it is in motion. How did you overcome that and convince KUKA Robotics to lend you a robot for the work?

Actually, all I needed to do was to sign an indemnity agreement to assume full responsibility for the safety of my own company members! On top of that, we also added an emergency stop button that can be triggered by the rehearsal director. Fortunately, we have not had any need to use this button.

You have been working intensively with KUKA for the past four years. Having spent so much time with KUKA, do you see parts of yourself in your robotic partner? If so, why?

Absolutely! There is one experience with KUKA that left a lasting impression on me. We had a work-in-progress showcase at the University of Maryland in the US, but due to some technical issues, we did not have much time to rehearse, so the dress rehearsal ended up being the actual performance.

During the cello segment of that performance, where I have an intimate duet with KUKA, I suddenly could not remember my movements. It was KUKA who led me to finish that duet. That experience showed me that KUKA is as good as a flesh-and-blood collaborator who is able to tell me what I have to do next.

KUKA is like an extension of myself. When I dance with KUKA it feels as if I am looking in a mirror.

Huang Yi & KUKA began as a 20-minute piece. How did you evolve the work into the full-length piece that we see today, especially with the addition of your other co-dancers Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen?

I wanted to tour and work with Hu and Lin, so I decided to include them both in the production. Just like how I have a relationship with KUKA, Hu and Lin are also very important people in my life, so I wanted to complete the work together with them.

I had also always wanted to have a segment in the work where a male and female dancer are controlled by the robot, to hand over the reins to KUKA, for it to direct the fate of this puppet-like pair.

That we were actually able to make this a full-length performance is due to the encouraging support of the people who have seen this production. It gave me the confidence to continue developing the work into a full-length piece, in spite of the significant financial challenges of doing so.

What do you hope audience members get out of this production?

My biggest hope is this: if there are any members of the audience who grew up in difficult circumstances—please don’t give up on chasing your dreams, because that was how I completed this work with KUKA. I also hope that art will have the power to bring people out of poverty.

What is next for you and KUKA?

We will be going to Australia to sunbathe, have fun at the beach, and soak up the sunshine of the Southern Hemisphere.

Fill in the blank. KUKA is ___.

KUKA is a piano, because its performance depends on how its interpretor plays it.
KUKA is also me, because through KUKA, you can hear my voice.

Huang Yi & KUKA was presented as part of Huayi – Chinese Festival of Arts in 2016.


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