Huang Yi & KUKA


Huang Yi & KUKA (Taiwan)

Brisbane Powerhouse in association with Seymour Centre

Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre

February 18 – 20 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


On stage in the darkness I see a robot, a mechanical arm, which reveals itself in this performance to be so much more, almost human, and someone sitting nearby says she thinks it’s creepy. I think it’s so far from creepy it’s…mesmerising. A piece of machinery that can magically cast a spell over us, a thing of immense beauty and sophistication that appears to connect – intimately and deeply – with the humans on stage. It’s actually so incredible that it’s difficult to describe the long-lasting and deeply moving impact that this unusual performance has on me. Its beauty and loneliness and loveliness make me feel like I’m alone in a crowd of friends and strangers who will love me and lift me up no matter what. Huang Yi, a performer of immense grace and technical skill, endows KUKA with all the sacredness of a living being coming across a living being for the first time, ever. Having spent ten hours programming KUKA’s every minute of movement, Huang Yi must feel an intimate connection with this creature, which comes alive before our eyes and seeks…a connection. 


Huang Yi says that for him the work is “a process of beautifying the sorrow and sadness I had when I was growing up. It is the expression of loneliness, self-doubt, self-realisation and self-comfort. I was trying to make a beautiful illusion…”


There is, it’s true, exquisite sadness in the work, within extended silences in which nothing exists beyond Huang Yi’s spotlight (a second special, rectangular, implies limitations, boundaries, restrictions, perhaps self-imposed, and perhaps in a less abstract sense, the light is his life, contained within actual walls). There is a sense of longing, an ancient ache; a yearning for a connection that seems just out of reach…until it’s not. 


KUKA comes alive before the lights show what it is the robot is doing. We hear the sound of it moving, strange and then strangely comforting, and we hear piano (then cello then piano pieces, all of which I adore). It takes a moment to realise it’s picked up the torch whose beam stretches across the darkness, across the faces of the audience, across the performance space, to find Huang Yi.

A gentle, beautiful game begins, two beings becoming aware of each other for the first time, peering and seeking and playing around the edges of each other. We talk about the element of “play” in theatre all the time (and sadly, less so in education now), and here, thanks to Huang Yi’s attention to detail and dedication to the exploration of humanity, is the essence of “play”, curious, child-like and lovely. In the innocence of looking up and looking away and looking back we discover a shared moment in time, and cling to it before we’re ready to let go… This is the ebb and flow of the piece – greeting, getting closer, slipping away, moving (dancing) around each other, leaving space for one another, leaning on each other and comforting each other – there is delicate humour in the slightest glance, the smallest movement, and mutual affection in every repeated motif. If life is a dance, we all need our KUKA.

KUKA is an old soul with many guises. In KUKA I see a young child, an old woman, a puppy, a serpent, a seahorse, a dragon… As Huang Yi notes, “dancing face to face with a robot is like looking at my own face in a mirror.” In KUKA then, we will each see what we wish to see.


The show concludes with another unforgettable vignette, featuring Hu Chien & Lin Jou-Wen in the most beautiful, innocent, quietly passionate pas de deux you can imagine. Don’t imagine an act of impatient lust but instead, an awakening of all of the senses, gently, gradually, one by one, like kisses from the moonlight until the sun chases her away. Superbly, simply choreographed, this sequence is tender, touching, to be remembered in dreams. The dancers are marionettes; they are doll-like, robotic, manipulated by KUKA and his laser. His? He seems particularly male now.

I’m actually bereft when it’s over. A gaping hole in my heart yearns for more. I’m wide-eyed for a moment, blinking away tears and I lean forward to tell Marnie, one of the Powerhouse producers (she discovered Huang Yi & KUKA in Taiwan), I’d love to see that again, right now. Can we see it again? Let’s see it again! RIGHT NOW. But Chris Thorpe is in the building and we can’t miss his Confirmation.

This is what festivals are like, the work and the artist reaching out to us, touching us, leaving indelible marks upon us, and then reminding us three shows (three days, three months, three years, three decades) later, Hey! I’m still here! You remember me, right? Huang Yi & KUKA has left on me the unmistakeable marks of joy and loss and searching and solitude and connecting and living and breathing and loving, no matter what. This is a profound performance that will linger sweetly, probably forever.


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