Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Digital empathy

The impact of dance on screen


Published: 6 Oct 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Cover image: Animated motion graphics for 14, a 5-hour durational livestream part of da:ns festival 2021.

Did you too, bemoan in 2020 that online dance performances and digital interactive experiences were just not as good as the “real” thing of live performances in theatres? Dance studies has a concept of “kinesthetic empathy”, where an audience member’s brain simulates the sensation of the performers’ movements that the audience witnesses, and creates a deep sense of connection to the work. Up till now, many dance artists and audiences would tell you that dance is something that you can only experience fully in person.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, artists have scrambled for a digital lifeline in this new world of periodic lockdowns, theatre closures, safe distancing and mask requirements, while most international touring remains hamstrung. At the same time, a majority of performing arts audiences have gotten used to the strangeness of video conferencing, and I suspect many of us have even come to understand ourselves as the digital avatars on our Zoom “self view”. The bombardment of screen time can breed a sense of digital apathy. Can it also develop a sense of digital kinesthetic empathy?

This article focuses on recent developments in dance via digital formats such as livestreams, interactive online experiences, and the endless hybrid configurations such as streaming from or into an actual theatre venue, Zoom performances, Virtual Reality (VR) and more. The examples have been drawn primarily from recent years’ programming of the Esplanade da:ns festival itself, as well as other Singapore-based institutions. It is a companion piece to an earlier feature on the genre of the dance film.

Beyond a substitute for in-person performances

Can digital interventions be a satisfactory replacement for live performance? Artists who pivoted to digital versions of already programmed works or existing repertoire found that the initial question led to a more complex adventure. How do digital mediums reshape the triangular relationship of performer-performance-audience? How does the medium itself become material for artistic choicesfor example the possibility of recruiting the alternative screen paradigms of Zoom meetings, PC games, YouTube or Instagram Live, TikTok, TV broadcast or even WhatsApp or karaoke systems?

Immersiveness and interactivity

In 2021, Filipino choreographer Eisa Jocson’s Manila Zoo was to have been the third instalment of her staged Happyland series, where dancers would embody zoo animals in a commentary on spectacle and the labour of brown bodies in Disneyland. With her dancers stuck in lockdown and travel having become impossible, the work found new dimensions when Jocson opted to have herself and other performers livestreamed from their homes. Performers pacing the confines of their domestic spaces turned out to be a powerful analogy for the isolation-induced psychosis of zoo animals. For the da:ns festival premiere, the Zoom performance will be screened to in-person theatre audiences and will co-opt audience participation.

Intimate, interactive performances can also fare well in adaptation. Ming Poon’s The Intervention of Loneliness (Lockdown Edition) for da:ns festival 2020 adapted Poon’s ongoing project of intimate encounters to bring audience members and their individual choices onstage for slow dances with the artist. The live Zoom version brought us face to face with Poon’s charismatic dialogue, and his invitation for audience members to move around between Zoom breakout rooms to negotiate one-to-one slow dances with each other. In the performance I attended, some duets reached out to “touch” the other partner through their cameras. I spent a couple of magical minutes slowly swaying while staring intently into my partner’s eyes. Audience could also pop into the duet rooms as a voyeur.

Also in 2020, Singaporean Daniel Kok’s 2018 durational installation performance xhe was adapted as a four-hour Zoom experience, offering the audience a gallery view tableau of dancers integrating with a universe of colourful objects, or the choice of multiple camera angles. At times, the audience was also invited to upload custom Zoom backgrounds that placed the viewer as an extension of the colourful universe where one could turn on the cameras and join the dance party.

Companies more accustomed to conventional stage settings also saw breakthroughs with digital adaptations.  In 2020, T.H.E Dance Company made a 360° VR version of its 2019 stage work PheNoumenon. The original in-person performance had already pushed boundaries for T.H.E by inviting the audience to sit and move freely around the space during the performance. In the digital remake, an Oculus headset and sound design brought audience members into an immersive view of the work. A handheld controller allowed for navigation between different episodes and viewpoints. A well-spaced-out handful of audience members experienced proximity and intensity within the safety of an otherwise empty studio. The limited capacity was balanced out by the possibility of a longer run of multiple performances.

In the above works, live and digital versions were fundamentally different and equally powerful, and explored new and interesting aspects of the original performance concept.

Hybrid artists in their element

For artists already working with the screen medium and hybrid performance spaces, the pandemic has become their moment to seize the day.

For Esplanade’s da:ns festival 2021, Taiwanese choreographer Chen Wu-Kang and video director Sun Ruey Horng created 14, designed as a 5-hour durational livestream toggling between five locations and 19 artists’ 14-minute artist solos performed from empty theatres, accompanied by sports telecast-style commentary from five artist-commentators. A recording of the livestream remains available for a month on the Esplanade’s platform.

Chen admits the irony that his initial vision of loneliness was countered during the performance by a sense of community and connections between artists and viewers. The marathon experience built on Chen’s earlier works for stage and online that collapsed interior and exterior spaces, juxtaposing multiple points of view with the choice of camera views and live commentary.

Geneva-based Cie Gilles Jobin’s 2021 VR piece Cosmogony is the latest in the company’s years of research into mapping live dancers and/or audience members into VR avatars. In Cosmogony the digital reincarnations are clad in shifting psychedelic skins, dancing through 3D game landscapes as towering giants or armies of life-size figures.

Initial views of a parallel live video feed kept us aware that the dancers and technicians were working in a cramped dance studio, while the monumental figures’ actions were being derived from dancers’ bodysuits dotted with alien-looking ping-pong ball movement sensors. Jobin’s work was previously featured in niche platforms like Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier platform but was ripe for platforms like the 2021 Singapore International Festival of the Arts, where Cosmogony was projected on the stage of the Esplanade Theatre.

In Australia, dance film and dance video installation-maker Sue Healey’s Live Action Relay was an on-location livestream of dancers and a musician performing on a stunning rocky coast. The work brought  together Healey’s filmic sensibilities with some behind the scenes coverage of the TV-style live crew and a drone camera following the action, and Healey’s real-time producing decisions to transition between multiple cameras and scenes. The 20-minute work was performed only twice to ticketed audiences, and it was clear that each performance carried the excitement and ephemerality of the moment.

Have your cake and eat ice cream too

There is still naturally a hunger for live performances in physical venues, which have thankfully returned in Singapore and some parts of the world. Philip Auslander, a seminal author on liveness, offered this perspective in 2007: “(L)iveness is a moving target, a historically contingent concept whose meaning changes over time and is keyed to technological development.”

Due to the pandemic’s impact on live performances, the past two years’ programming at Esplanade has accelerated ongoing initiatives to be both a live and digital performing arts centre for Singapore and Asia. The centre is working with artists to support projects that use the digital as a medium, creating resources for arts appreciation here on Esplanade Offstage, as well as developing strategies to reach new audiences and leveraging on new forms of audience interactivity afforded by digital platforms. Esplanade’s head of dance and international development Faith Tan says that the 2021 edition of the da:ns festival “represents a determination by festival programmers and artists to keep performances going despite pandemic restrictions”. As an international festival it also “challenged itself to present dance work from around the world when travel is near impossible, such as 14, Manila Zoo and Dissemination Everywhere!, and to find new ways to dance, which include exploring the key developments within dance that point to its future”.

Digital performance offers new art mediums that are here to stay. I’d like to think that audiences are coming to understand that we can have some of our cake and eat ice cream too—we are increasingly able to return to in-person performances in theatres, and at the same time enjoy digital performance experiences that can be interesting in themselves without unproductive comparisons to in-person performance. Then there’s the added cherry that more audiences can access more art—because of access needs and because we can now dip into many digital offerings from anywhere in the world.

Further reading

Does online theatre really need to be live? Alice Saville in Exeunt Magazine, December 2020

The Pursuit of Liveness: Performing Arts and Covid” Christopher Fok in Theatreartlife, 13 October 2020

How have other island nations’ arts sectors coped with Covid-19? Nick Awde in The Stage, 2 September 2020

Between Action and Image: Performance as ‘Inframedium’” Jonah Westerman, Tate Research Feature, January 2015

Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture by Philip Auslander, Routledge (2008)

Unmarked: The Politics of Performance by Peggy Phelan, Routledge (1993)

Contributed by:

Chan Sze-Wei

Sze-Wei is a dance maker, filmmaker, troublemaker, arts journalist and parent. Their practice for the stage and screen is focused on perception, sensation and the politics of the body. Their interactive live performances, films and video installations have been shown in Singapore and internationally. A dance writer since 2008, Sze-Wei's dance writing has been published in the Straits Times, ArtsEquator.com, Esplanade Offstage, Fivelines.asia and other publications.

See more of Sze-Wei's work at www.oddpuppies.com.

Finding new ways to dance

da:ns festival 2021

Presented within four focal points, the festival invites artists and audiences alike to turn attention towards new perspectives on and experiences of the body and movement.

8 – 17 Oct

See all programmes
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