Robots can be counted on to fascinate. They’re in our dreams, in sci-fi literature and films (remember 2013’s “Her,” a writer’s romance with his operating system?). And they haunt our nightmares, threatening greater outsourcing and job loss, as examined in new books such as John Markoff’s “Machines of Loving Grace.”
Even Stephen Hawking has warned that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
Into this push-pull tango with robots steps Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi. The resident artist at Taiwan’s National Theater and Concert Hall uses an industrial robot as a mirror of his own longing in “Huang Yi & KUKA,” an hour-long piece he performed this weekend at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. (KUKA Robotics, a German company, supplied the mechanical dance partner.) But there are still some bugs in his creation.
For starters, you could hardly see either the dancer or the robot. They moved in darkness, illuminated by the inadequate beam of the robot’s work light. This robot isn’t a replica of a human, by the way, but one of those disembodied mechanical arms on a broad base, used for machine tooling and such in factories. Occasionally one of the theater’s spotlights helped, but not by much.
There were familiar snatches of Bach and Arvo Pärt in this slow-moving, sometimes poignant tableau. Just as often, there was silence, sliced through by the whining buzz of the robot’s pneumatics. This was not a pleasant sound. Combine it with the darkness, the slowness — and I haven’t even gotten to the baffling lack of tension or surprise.
Large chunks of this piece felt like looking at a vacuum cleaner stored in a broom closet. The KUKA was largely motionless and obscured in shadow, and Huang spent a lot of time staring at it.
In the final minutes, two other dancers faced each other in chairs as the KUKA shone a laser beam over them, which seemed to send them into spasms. But why, and who were they? They were certainly a welcome change, but they didn’t fit into the story, such as it was, of the young man yearning for companionship.
The best part of this work was Huang’s artist statement in the printed program. He grew up in a family that had fallen into poverty, he writes, and he watched his parents “go through suicide attempts.” Young Huang strived to be “like a robot: obedient, friendly . . . perhaps no personality.” His duet with the real robot grew out of that sorrow and the desire for “a beautiful illusion.”
It’s a lovely explanation of the origins of this work. Unfortunately, neither the emotional realities of that world nor the unease of his imagination make it through the darkness of his creation.