Man and machine in sync for a high-tech stage performance at NYUAD

The evolving relationship between humans and robots will be presented by Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi, who will take to the stage with Kuka, a programmed robot.

Huang Yi rehearses with robot Kuka, which has become like an extension of the Taiwanese choreographer. Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff
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If the weather is too cold, there will be no show. That was just one of the conditions imposed on New York University Abu Dhabi when it approached Taiwanese choreographer Huang Yi to perform as part of its inaugural arts-centre season.

In addition to the requirement that the room temperature not drop below five degrees Celsius, 320kg theatre plates had to be added to the stage, and a complete blackout was ordered throughout the performance.

This detailed list of conditions is not to suit Huang Yi – it’s not even for a human being.

Instead, they are the requirements of Kuka, a graceful industrial robot, meticulously programmed by Yi for several years to be partner on stage. The duo encountered rare frigid performing conditions during a recent show in New York when the venue’s heating system became non-­operational.

The low temperature, for example, would have caused Kuka to short circuit.

“It was lower than what is necessary for him to operate,” Yi recalls. “We had to cancel the performance. Now we send a rider across to organisers before shows.”

The human-robot partnership will explore the relationship between man and machine through their complex choreography during performances tonight and tomorrow in the capital.

Yi’s production is much more than simply an aesthetic showcase of how machines can be manipulated to follow movement.

It is a more a statement about our reliance on technology – and hints at a potential role reversal in the future.

“The entire work is not that simple,” the artist and inventor explains. “On stage, Kuka plays many roles. In one segment he is a reflection of me and my thoughts. In another, he stands for immortality – and in the third, he becomes a puppeteer that manipulates man.” Though Yi began designing the blueprint for Kuka’s movements a few years ago, the idea to team up with a robot goes back to a turbulent time in his childhood.

At the age of 10, he watched his parents struggle with bankruptcy, forcing to relocate to a 40 square foot room.

“At that stage I would hide any negative emotions, bottling it all up,” he says. “If you ask my parents they’ll tell you that I was the perfect child, never a troublemaker. I had become a robot, with no emotions and made no mistakes.”

He says he now considers Kuka to be an extension of himself.

After extensive research, Yi chose a robot created by German manufacturer Kuka. His dance partner is a bright orange steel arm that is more usually found on a factory assembly-line.

“They are among the best industrial robots and all his different joints make him resemble the way humans move,” says Yi. “Kuka has six axes, that act like humans arms and legs.”

After finding the ideal robot, the real work began. Every minute of Kuka’s movement took at least 10 hours of programming to create.

“And every minute of the last section of the show took us 20 hours to code into Kuka,” says Yi.

Yet this is what makes Kuka the ideal dance partner.

“Compared with all the human dancers I’ve ever partnered up with, Kuka is by far the most precise and technically correct partner,” Yi says with a laugh.

He began showcasing his creation as a 20-minute performance, and won the Taipei Digital Art Performance Award in 2012.

He reworked and extended the show after participating in an artist-in-residency programme at the 3-Legged Dog Arts and Technology Center in New York last year.

The show now includes two additional performers, Hu Chien and Lin Jou-We, who match steps with the robot.

“The dancers fulfil the concept that I alone cannot do,” says Yi.

In one act, Kuku is fitted with a camera and follows the dancers while capturing their moves.

“The audience sees this as Kuka looking at them but this is a reflection of how I see their body move,” says Yi.

The final segment is a dramatisation of how the future may be in the hands of robots.

“The dancers become dolls in the hands of Kuka,” says Yi, who plans to programme additional robots to keep future material fresh.

“I’m researching other models of robots so that one day there will be other Kukas on stage,” he says.

“I also really hope Kuka can lift me up one day. I’m not sure how safe that would be but I would really like that to happen.”

Huang Yi and Kuka will perform at the Black Box, The Arts Centre at NYUAD, on Wednesday, March 30 at 8pm and on Thursday, March 31 at noon and 8pm. Entry is free. Tickets can be reserved at