Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Tea Sung Heo is dancing Hallyangchum with kinetic fans © Mi-sook Kim

Traditional Dance and Artificial Intelligence

The Asia Dance Culture Institute, under the Department of Ethnic Dance at Gyeongsang National University, staged a Korean traditional dance performance on November 11, 2019, which consisted of taepyeongmu (dance of great peace; Korean National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 92), salpurichum (exorcism dance; Korean National Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 46), Dongnae hallyangchum (playboy dance of Dongnae; Busan Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 14) and Jindo bukchum (drum dance of Jindo; Jeollanam-do Intangible Cultural Heritage No. 18). The conceptual theme of the performance was to envisage the prestige of Korean traditional dance and facilitate its encounter with artificial intelligence (AI) robots in the coming era of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

It was regarded in dance circles as the first experimental performance of a traditional dance involving an AI robot in Korea. Dance critic Gyeong-ae Kim commented that the dancers showed a great rapport with the robots on stage, adding that the robots did not appear as objects, and instead, the dancers and robots each represented their own form of dance on the same stage, which raised the question of how robots will be introduced into dance and further developed in the future.

There were many concerns and struggles in the process of preparing for this performance. How could we truly establish a rapport with robots? What should we feel and pursue through this performance? We were deeply perplexed at having to dance with industrial robots that only have a single arm seemingly made of cold scrap metal. We programmed the robots with every single part of our traditional dance techniques, and then we created a collaborative work together as I danced my own dance and the robots danced theirs on stage. The robots may have seemed like mere objects visually, but they were anything but that in reality. I was en rapport with the robots as co-performers sharing the stage, which opened the door to infinite artistic expansion.

I became overwhelmed by a surge of fear that someday human beings may be technologically replaced by robots. Professor Tae-hee Kim of the Department of Robotic Engineering at Youngsan University, who collaborated on this performance, remarked that his dream was to manufacture a dancing robot that was capable of possessing sentiments. Could a robot reproduce the beauty of human dance? If a dance performed by a robot can be beautiful, where does such beauty come from? What exactly is the beauty of human dance? If we can make a robot dance so splendidly, then could we come to find another form of beauty from it? With these questions in mind, he strove passionately for our performance.

However, we believe that robots are not capable of possessing emotions at all, even if they might eventually come to rule the world, as though we are flaunting the superiority of human beings. In particular, we think that the eternal nature of our movements and the greatness of our minds will always surpass our imagination. The aesthetic release and enjoyment that are revealed by such belief are said to be the greatest source of happiness for human beings. I once believed so as well, but these ideas began to falter in the course of preparing for our performance with robots. I was perhaps somewhat frightened in advance at the thought of the fourth industrial revolution in addition to the apprehension that even the transmission of intangible heritage might be handed over to robots someday.

“Dialogue Between Dance and Robots” did not happen overnight. Inspired by the Cambodian Apsara dance at the ninth One Asia In Dance event in 2016, each Asian country has been experimenting with merging its traditional dance with AI technology every year.

“One Asia In Dance” is an Asian folk dance festival organized by the Asia Dance Culture Institute since 2010. It is a platform intended to identify traditional and artistic sensibilities across the Asian region and anticipate the future of Asian dance alongside numerous countries through a variety of activities, such as Asian dance performances, international forums, street performances, cultural lectures, expert work-shops and documentary film making. The festival is designed to showcase each Asian country’s unique cultural hues through various forms of dance choreography.

Since its launch in 2007, the Asia Dance Culture Institute has identified, inherited and developed Asian dance, and furthermore, disseminated it widely in Korea and abroad with the aim to promote the greatness of Asian choreographed arts. It also endeavors to develop cultural contents for Asian dance through academic conferences and education projects. This year, we ventured to perform “Dialogue Between Dance and Robots” as a regular performance of the Asian Traditional Dance Company. Our time-honored dance that has been inherited from the distant past through the lasting accumulation of time is said to be a product into which the past and the present have been condensed and converged. The moment such traditional dance encounters engineering science, we can cautiously begin to anticipate the upcoming future. In the not-so-distant future, perhaps we will feel that AI and robots are our close companions in life, as opposed to simple tools, as we enter into the era of the fourth industrial revolution. It would not be an exaggeration to speculate that this work of collaboration between humans and robots on stage represents a new world that awaits us. The Asia Dance Culture Institute will continue its efforts to create new content that will be born from the convergence of intangible cultural heritage and artificial intelligence.