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da:ns Lab is an annual artist meeting, organised as a collaboration between Dance Nucleus and da:ns Festival of Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay in Singapore. It is a programme to interrogate choreographic practice that began in 2015. da:ns Lab 2020 is the programme’s 6th edition.
da:ns Lab is an annual workshop-seminar for artists and arts practitioners to critically reflect on key issues surrounding their creative practice. This year's theme is Co-immunity: How to Dance When We Are All Ill, inviting participants to reflect on all that has been disordered amidst global crises and health emergencies. In this paradigm of illness, we challenge the preconceptions often assumed of the dancing body—as one that is able-bodied, productive and live.
da:ns Lab 2020 is a remote meeting taking place online with 60 participants from six regional clusters across Hong Kong, Manila, New Delhi, Singapore, Sydney and Taipei. Participants explored how dance can operate within the paradoxical framework of co-immunity, developing infrastructures of support and relations of care, while building resistance and resilience across the different arts ecologies in the region.
Now might be a good time to rethink what a revolution can look like. Perhaps it doesn’t look like a march of angry, abled bodies in the streets. Perhaps it looks something more like the world standing still because all the bodies in it are exhausted—because care has to be prioritised before it’s too late.
The world is standing still amidst transnational choreographies of movement control orders, curfews and lockdowns. Governments implement stricter measures to enforce social distancing, as an immunological response to curb the spread of the global pandemic. As events, performances and festivals are cancelled or deferred to an uncertain future, many arts and cultural workers are left suspended in its wake. In these extraordinary circumstances where we are unable to gather, to move, and even to touch, dancers are faced with an impossible set of conditions—how to dance when we are all ill?
While Covid-19 is a global health emergency, it also manifested the symptoms of much longer socio-economic, political and ecological crises, exposing complex systems that have already been chronically ill. It painfully revealed the debilitating conditions and vulnerabilities of being a dancer within a precarious arts ecology. In the region, the Hong Kong protests are roiled by deep sociopolitical unrest while the Australian bushfires warn of larger climate catastrophe. 2020 is a state of emergency. But these crises have demonstrated that recovery in this context should not be a nostalgic return to the normal, because the existing conditions of the ‘normal’ was what precipitated the crisis.
To dance in such times, we must recuperate the paradigm of illness, reorienting some of the precepts that are often assumed of the dancing body, as one that is able-bodied, productive and live.
What choreographies become accessible with the ill-bodied dancer, and can this embodiment offer different strategies for navigating the crisis? What remains live when our bodies are screened, and augmented by the prosthetics of new media technologies? Amidst a contagion—a term that etymologically denotes “together touching”—can we reimagine the parameters of dancing together across social distancing, where other forms of assembly are realised?
The restless ensemble of exhausted bodies is a symptom of the precarious labour conditions that plague many arts and cultural workers. It is time for us to take a break from the frenetic rhythms of production, to slow down, and to de-programme. By relinquishing our obsession with the relentless metrics of productive output, we can rehabilitate our working processes by recalibrating the conditions, protocols and procedures to more sustainable modes that prioritise our creative practices and wellbeing.
Inhabiting illness calls for a praxis of care that extends beyond immunology. Immunological systems are predicated on the exclusion of a threatening other—a foreign body. Instead of reinscribing the xenophobic logic of immunitary nationalism, we aim to foster interdependent networks of solidarity across borders. To reconcile this immunological metaphor with the contaminations of community, we will explore how dance can operate within the paradoxical framework of co-immunity, to develop infrastructures of support and thicker relations of care, building resistance and resilience across the different arts ecologies in the region. Through a different kind of embodiment, we might feel the possibilities of a movement even as we remain still.
da:ns Lab 2020: Prognosis, Treatment & Rehabilitation
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Even before the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic set in, the 2020 edition of da:ns Lab had been designed to differ markedly from previous editions. The content and participant interactions were to be distinctly structured in three ways: the multi-location “satellite” format, the use of multiple concurrent online platforms in Zoom rooms and Google Docs, as well as the thematic framing of each of the four days of the event according to stages of treatment of illness. Where previous editions had included up to x participants, this edition hosted a record of 64.
The imposition of strict lockdowns and movement restrictions in nearly all of the participating countries during the event period made it impossible for most groups to meet in person as originally intended. Instead, the event proceeded with mixed formats. The Taiwan/Taipei satellite met on location (but often participating through personal devices) throughout the four days, and the Hong Kong satellite met in person on the first day – while all other participants attended from their homes.
While the programme was co-ordinated and curated from Singapore, all six country groups were designated as “satellites”, without an explicit centre. The sense of “nation” and “home” - so magnified by the national and regional border closures happening during the pandemic - was both reinforced and challenged. Ideas and encounters and were both rooted in local context and de-centred and expanded: the curators worked closely with a co-facilitator in each country who tapped on their network to bring together an inter-disciplinary group of artists, many of whom were encountering each other for the first time.
Each co-facilitator initiated pre-discussions among satellite members to develop a set of ideas arising from the concerns and interests of the participants in each place. These were refined by each satellite group on the first day of the lab, and offered as proposals for discussion. On the second and third days of the lab, each of these proposals was opened up to smaller breakout room discussions amongst a mix of participants from various satellites, who found their own connections with the topic and developed the discussion in new directions. On the final day, each satellite presented their response(s) on the final day of the lab.
In a pre-event keynote video lecture, Tang Fu Kuen offered participants a shared starting point. In the uncertainty of the pandemic, he pointed to the ambiguous role of metaphors such as the medical, and challenged the current overwhelmingly negative associations with the term “virus”. At the junction of virology and philosophy, Tang also pointed to the ideas of nineteenth-century theoretical biologist Jakob von Uexküll, who described an umwelt or milieu where organisms do not merely occupy an environment, they create it. Their relation to the environment is not a given, but a constant development. Alternatively put, that all beings coexist and inter-subjectively influence each other as an indivisible biological entity.
The medical metaphors underlying the concept of the event extended to the schedule: a symbolic compression of the time of one day, each framed according to phases of medical treatment – Diagnosis, Prognosis, Treatment, Rehabilitation.
“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”
– Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1988)
In contrast to a layman/patient’s understanding of these terms, each label was re-framed by the curators, to suggest a different mode of reflection and analysis even as participants returned to the same themes each day from different angles and with different interlocutors, depending on each participant’s own interest. Rather than implying that the gathering might discover and effect a “cure” for the issues identified, it was proposed that each issue identified as an “illness”, or a problem merited further consideration. Rehabilitation could be understood as an on-going process, rather than an instant of recovery.
“In addition to the Main Space where we will have our collective meetings, we are also opening up spaces that participants can drop in and out of any time. Feel free to meet up – by chance or by appointment – with other da:ns lab participants in the other rooms for a side conversation or to hang out! 🙂 Unfortunately, these rooms come unfurnished, there’s no running water, and the bar is BYOB, but you can come and go as you wish! Do note that these rooms are unlocked, so you may not be able to have 100% privacy in these spaces or stop others from wandering in.”
In an attempt to counter the impersonality of virtual spaces, organisers named the multiple Zoom meeting rooms used for the event to suggest the configuration of shared domestic spaces. The “layout” also offered the possibility of informal encounters in self-initiated configurations, apart from the main meeting schedule. E.g. the Australian and Indian satellites continued unfinished discussions overtime; Singapore elections results watch party in the toilet. Shared documents on Google Drive were another virtual space that participants shared. Documents with shared editing rights were used for live documentation or collection of ideas in parallel to specific sessions. The “Whiteboard” document was open throughout the four days as a space for the posting of reflections and references, and became another site for lively interaction and discussion in an alternate time frame to the main lab schedule.
“What ties them together is the root word, again in Latin, munus, which is a kind of gift (a donum). Esposito characterizes the difference like this: ‘If communis is he who is required to carry out the functions of an office – or to the donation of a grace – on the contrary, he is called immune who has to perform no office, and for that reason he remains ungrateful.’ (6) Esposito wishes to show that the munus is a kind of debt – an owing: ‘The subjects of a community are united by an “obligation,” in the sense that we say ‘I owe you something,’ but not ‘you owe me something.'’
The first word many participants and co-facilitators used to describe the experience of da:ns Lab was exhaustion. Not necessarily in a negative sense – they expressed surprise at how drained they felt from the daily 5-6 hour videoconferencing schedule. That sensation encompassed not only the effort of intellectual engagement but also the uncertainty and fear of the pandemic, the strain of living in isolation, and the precarity of relationships, livelihoods and political situations. Parallel to the desire for rest was the desire to move, and to centre an embodied perspective. Some participants highlighted the irony of engaging a “dance” event where everyone was sitting in front of screens for four days. Within the limitations of the Zoom meeting, curators invited participants to fashion their own experiences; some discussions were conducted while participants went out for walks and some breakout groups engaged in collective breathing exercises and massage workshops. On Day 3, a Bollywood Dance Party was offered in the “Bar” zoom room as a post-programme activity. By the fourth day, two satellites unanimously decided to process their closing responses to the lab through embodiment and movement – one taking the form of a dance party, and the other a mini-festival of movement work on recorded media.
Initial discussions in many satellite groups veered toward “solutions” even on the first day of the lab. Yet the following days’ repeated examination and re-opening of the six “diagnoses” allowed a process of expansion and excavation, of linking and cross-referencing to new contexts and ideas. Discussions were opening rather than focusing, and ideas were distributed and propagated rather than concluded. Participants described a sense of virtual nomadism and cross-contamination of ideas as central to their experience.
Produced by Dance Nucleus
Curated by Daniel KOK and Shawn CHUA (Singapore)
Co-facilitators J K ANICOCHE (Manila), Ranjana DAVE (New Delhi), HUANG Ding Yun (Taipei), Wayson POON (Hong Kong) and Claire HICKS (Sydney)
Documentarians CHAN Sze Wei and CHAN Hsin Yee
Supported by Thinker’s Theatre (Taipei), City Contemporary Dance Centre (Hong Kong), Critical Path (Sydney) and Gati Dance Forum (New Delhi)
The Dance Nucleus team consists of MOK Cui Yin, Daniel KOK, Dapheny CHEN and CHAN Hsin Yee.
Special Thanks to Iris CHEUNG, Shireen Abdullah and Karmen WONG of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.
da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.