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The (dance) doctor is in

Choy Ka Fai speaks in character for his new work Dance Clinic.


Published: 5 Oct 2017

Time taken : ~10mins

How does the brain synthesise data to generate movement? Can we examine a dancer’s consciousness as they create dance? Can neuroscience and technology fix their problems?

These are the questions that Berlin-based Singapore artist Choy Ka Fai explores in this research-based performance Dance Clinic.

A da:ns festival co-commission, this new work imagines a future where dance meets technology, where choreography can be hypothesised with artificial intelligence, and where dance clinics improve your act of choreography and eliminate undesirable symptoms of dance. Choy takes on the role of a self-proclaimed Doctor to diagnose and “rehabilitate” two distinctly different dance artists in a series of live consultations, case studies and dance experiments assisted by an artificial intelligent dance system called Ember Jello.

Ahead of his exciting showcase, we speak to Choy, who gives tongue-in-cheek replies while in character as the Dance Doctor.

Can you share the impetus or inspiration behind this project?

The Dance Doctor: It started with a simple question, “What are dancers thinking of when they dance?” In the last five years, there has been an exponential growth of dance performances in museum or gallery spaces. I started to wonder what these bodies on display might be telling us. What experiences are they trying to transmit to the audience?

To be honest, most of the time, I did not enjoy or feel engaged with such works. Thus I became curious about the thought processes during these performances and their choreography. This curiosity led me to scientifically measure and experiment with dancers’ brainwaves to help them improve by technological means.

What are the "dance symptoms" that your patients share with you during the consultations? What are your suggested treatments?

There are two types of dance patients at the dance clinic. Type (A) Patients come to us with a problem to be solved or a desired area for improvement. Type (B) Patients do not know they have a problem. It is like having dance cancer, sometime there are no symptoms at all. At the clinic, we screen the patients, detect the symptoms and identify the problem. After that, our Artificial intelligence—Ember Jello—will prescribe a treatment plan.

Let me give an example. A dance patient from Hong Kong is trapped by the anxiety of influence when practising free dance improvisation. He no longer feels free and would like to find ways to improvise and move like he has never done before. For this patient, our treatment plan is to stimulate his “active thinking” brainwaves when he is given certain choreographic tasks. Ember Jello will compute data like sensory rhythm, relaxation and memory index as biological feedback for his therapy programme.

Choy Ka Fai's Dance Clinic.

Who are your featured case studies, Florentina Holzinger and Darlane Litaay?

Darlane Litaay is a Type (A) Patient, he comes to us with a desire to improve. A contemporary dancer from West Papua, Indonesia, he wants to reconnect with his Papuan folk tradition, specifically on the aspects of trance and spirituality. But he is brought up as a Christian. His case study is a prime example of how the dance clinic empowers choreographers with technology to accelerate discoveries about existing practices.

Florentina Holzinger is a Type (B) Patient with no obvious symptoms. The Austrian-born dancer-choreographer, whose work I have been following for the last three years, is the new darling of the European contemporary dance scene. Last year, I approached her for a free screening session, as I suspected she might have some psychological issues from her capacity to create such intense, dynamic and crazy performances. Indeed, the clinic diagnosed some choreographic traumas in her. We hope to provide a productive rehabilitation and propose different ways to optimise her choreographic health status.

In operating at the intersection between dance and technology, your work explores ways to overcome the limits of the human body. Why this interest?

As a Dance Doctor, I am always looking for ways to help patients around the world create a better understanding and experience of cultural expression. My interest stems from the belief that dance is the most repetitious and synchronic of all expressive behaviours; it has turned out to be a kind of touchstone for human adaptation. Through dance, we may be able to find out more about the human condition across time.

Your clinic imagines very bold directions for the future of dance and choreography. How far away is the technical expertise required to realise what are currently semi-fictional projections on your part?

Imagination is humankind’s most precious trait. Many great advances in science and technology have been fuelled by our imaginations. I want to inspire new enquiries rather than be constrained by reality.

About 20 years ago, scientists dreamt of creating synthetic life and it was achieved in less than 10 years. In 2010, American-born biochemist-geneticist Craig Venter built the genome of a bacterium from scratch and incorporated it into a cell to make the world's first synthetic life form. As Dance Doctors, it is not exciting to talk about fiction because we want to live in the future.

Do you see yourself being based in Berlin for the foreseeable future?

Yes, I will continue to live and work in Berlin due to the nature of my work. I don’t think I can find a job back in Singapore, as Choreographic Health Care In Contemporary Dance is not part of our national Medisave directive. There needs to be a major infrastructure and policy revamp before Singaporean dancers can get insurance coverage for their Choreographic Health Care. For serious cases such as Choreographic Cancer, I suggest that dance patients seek treatment overseas as soon as possible.

Dance Clinic was presented on 20 & 21 Oct 2017 at the Esplanade Theatre Studio as part of da:ns festival.

Contributed by:

Adeline Chia

Adeline Chia is an arts writer based in Singapore. She is the associate editor of ArtReview Asia.

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