Cybernetics, dance and the future? Pichet Klunchun’s Cyber Subin

Experimental Theater, National Theater, Taipei
March 8, 2024

We reside in a present that is highly computerised. Barring something unforeseen, the future is only going to be even more so, with artificial intelligence likely to be increasingly to the fore. But while AI may well have benefits for humankind, many also see it as a demon that will could come to dominate. Perhaps even take over completely.

In Cyber Subin, Thai choreographer Pichet Klunchun, noted for his infusing of Thai classical dance with contemporary sensibilities, and Pat Pataranutaporn, technologist and researcher of human-AI interaction at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), consider how dance might be further developed, with computers and AI working alongside human dancers. Could those human dancers have a symbiotic, cybernetics-like relationship with machines, the outcome being a new form of contemporary dance?

In what is a roughly hour-long sort of performance-experiment, Klunchun and Pataranutaporn show us a glimpse of what might be possible as embodied avatars ‘dance’ alongside the work’s four human performers: Padung Jumpan, Tas Chongchadklang, Chung Chang-hong (鍾長宏) and Tsang King-fai (曾景輝), all very engaging and excellent throughout.

Pichet Klunchun’s Cyber Subin
Photo National Theater & Concert Hall/Lee Chia-yeh

‘Subin’ means ‘to dream’ in Thai. The work opens with projected text of rather appealing poetry from the Ramayana epic that tells a cautionary tale of heeding a premonition. It’s not difficult to draw parallels between Bibhek’s foretelling of destruction and the rise of artificial intelligence, and the prospect of it overshadowing human artistic creativity and more. Dream or nightmare? Discuss.

Cyber Subin builds slowly. The human dancers perform with pixelated images of themselves that gradually build into something approaching a human form, although the computer generated doubles do appear to be marginally behind. The performers’ movement is superbly precise, with an almost Cunnigham-esque clarity. When projected avatars walk across the screen, memories of Wayne McGregor’s Infra flood back.

Things get more complex. An algorithm is employed. Built from the six choreographic elements (energy, circles and curves, axis points, synchronous limbs, external body spaces, and shifting relations) of Klunchun’s ‘No. 60 Principle,’ extracted from Thai traditional movement, it is used to deconstruct and reconstruct the dance.

Pichet Klunchun’s Cyber Subin
Photo National Theater & Concert Hall/Lee Chia-yeh

With the faceless avatars projected on a backscreen and the stage floor, digital and human intermingle. The human dancers react to and renegotiate their being with the computer-generated output, which in turn responds to their bodies in real-time through sensors on stage. Hence machine influences dancer, and dancer influences machine, in a cybernetic loop.

Things step up another gear when dancers in turn, and later invited audience members, give instructions, choosing any of the six elements (but with rotations and dance speed replacing axis points and synchronous limbs); and a percentage. For example, ‘rotations, 85%.’ Zero clearly represents stillness, but what the presumably 100% base line is, is never explained. It’s all very well saying ‘85%.’ But 85% of what?

The human dancers appear individually, then as a group, with the avatars similarly multiplying. At one point, I counted thirty of the latter. Whether one considers them to be actually dancing depends how one defines dance, however. They can only respond to the information received in the manner programmed. They have no agency at all.

Pichet Klunchun’s Cyber Subin
Photo National Theater & Concert Hall/Lee Chia-yeh

The process is curiously attracting though, even amusing, especially when a dancer attempts to respond at 200%. Easy for an avatar, not limited by the restrictions of the human body, gravity and the presence of other live beings in the space. Impossible for the human, however hard they try.

Most significantly, Cyber Subin tells us that humans are simply way more interesting. They’re multi-dimensional, they have spirit and personality, all of which makes them far easier to relate to. And despite the way the work is set up, it is clear that their ability, perhaps even their desire, to interpret in their own way and as best they can is far from snuffed out. We see that the human body is capable of almost infinite ways of moving, whereas the avatars are absolutely restricted by the algorithm.

But while the human body is always likely to win out over avatars, Cyber Subin does maybe start to open a door, to show that it is possible to play with algorithms and programming for creating, maybe, a different kind of choreography. But is it in some ways a lazy way out? Could it diminish or even extinguish traditional choreographic skills? Is it any more than a good choreographer would be doing anyway?

Which brings us to Klunchun’s notion that all dance is a creative form of cybernetics governed by choreographic rules or criteria created by the choreographer. He notes that cybernetics is usually described as a closed-loop system that relays information, that in turn causes certain actions, as in Cyber Subin. The choreographic process is, in its way, often just such a closed system where the choreographer feeds information to the dancer’s body and mind, to which the dancer responds, in turn feeding the choreographer’s mind, and so on.

Looking back, while it may push the door ajar on a new way of choreographing (or does it start to open a Pandora’s Box?), I’m not convinced. Given the vast imagination and boundless creativity of humankind, a human choreographer is surely always likely to come up with more than an algorithm ever can, but Klunchun and Pataranutaporn do invite one to ponder, and maybe worry, about the role technology and machines might come to play. It will be interesting to see where he might go next with this, though.