Transcript of a virtual panel discussion, curated and convened by Lim How Ngean.
Lim How Ngean. Director, Asian Dramaturg’s Network (ADN)
Dr. Cheng Nien Yuan. Performance Scholar, Educator and dramaturg
Victoria Chiu. Choreographer
Carol Brown. Head of VCA Dance at University of Melbourne.
Daniel Kok. Artistic Director of Dance Nucleus
In the past two years or so, notions of performance took on different flights of creativity as the world accustomed itself to new vocabularies such as ‘social distancing,’ ‘lockdown,’ and/or ‘restricted capacity’. These include new ways of thinking, working, and dramaturging performance-making and performance processes and presentations. Artists and dramaturgs then also learned new aesthetic vocabularies in re-framing ideas of liveness, audience and performer participation, and intersecting different performance mediums to accommodate new ways of experiencing performance and art. This panel presented how some Asian artists and dramaturgs are responding to new realities in their social, cultural and aesthetic communities.
Lim How Ngean
The Asian Dramaturgs' Network (ADN) was formed with the intent of mapping and networking the region's dramaturgical experience and knowledge. ADN is collaboratively conceptualized with Center 42 and held its inaugural symposium in Singapore in 2016. Since then, we have held many gatherings of dramaturgs, performance makers and educators from around the Asia Pacific region. We have organized conferences, symposiums and workshops, with Center 42 as our principal organizing partner.
Dr. Cheng Nien Yuan
I am an honorary associate at the University of Sydney, a researcher at the Intercultural Theatre Institute and a dramaturg, film scholar and educator. Since the start of the pandemic, I've had the privilege of dramaturging three zoom theatre works and watching many others. While digital theatre is not a new field by any means, it was a very steep learning curve and I think I can speak for most of the people that I worked with, that making digital theatre in the past year has really changed our perspective on theatre making and how stories and concepts can be communicated in our practice.
In this introduction, I will be focusing on Who's There? (2020), which was staged early on in the pandemic in August 2020. Who's There? was created by The Transit Ensemble, which is a mix of artists based in Singapore, Malaysia and the US, and commissioned by New Ohio Theatres Ice Factory Festival. And it was a work about racial justice and privilege across these three countries, and this group was curated by Singaporean co-directors Alvin Tan and Sim Yan Ying. We were working across eight cities and five time zones, and most of us didn't know each other when we started. We began devising without a plot, script, narrative or characters, and what emerged from this exhausting two- month process is an assemblage of character-based magical realism, physical ensemble work, documentary theatre and political manifesto. It was a critique on the digital culture of both COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter, and it was made in the very precise moment when this all came to a head. Rehearsals started a week after George Floyd was murdered in the United States.
What is the role of the dramaturg in this process? In fact, this show had two dramaturgs: myself from Singapore and J. Ed Araiza from the US. J. Ed Araiza is one of the founding members of SITI Company in New York, and it was a huge privilege to work with someone of his experience. There was something about this process of digital theatre-making that dismantled conventional and hierarchical modes of working.
The new performance vocabularies that are afforded by Zoom made our roles in the collaborative process so much more open and fluid as we learn the particularities of this vocabulary together and which really just keeps shifting because of the nature of the work and also the movement of technology. As dramaturgs - a role that is already rather fluid even in conventional theatre - our job scopes became even more ambiguous.
Besides watching and critiquing the devising process, we played a big role in scripting, trimming and devising scenes, and even writing new ones, because there was no official playwright in the team who spent hours debating the wording of facts or opinion polls, which became really pivotal part of the performance experience. A lot of this debate actually happened not just on Zoom, but also on Google Docs and Google Drive in general, which really was not just a tool but another shared space of the rehearsal process, and that’s quite common in digital theatre as well. And the other one was group chat. At one point the directors had twenty-seven ongoing group chats. In my experience, one of the key roles of the dramaturg in digital theatre making is to really keep the process focussed on why this work has to be expressed in this form, not just because we are living in lockdown. In other words, to understand why the work has to be digital. We had people ask us if Who's There? was going to be re-staged physically and we said no, because I believe there should always be a reason why works are staged digitally beyond the fact that they have physical restrictions.
The cliché that theatre holds a mirror up to society definitely applies to digital theatre, especially since our identities and societies are shaped through digital means. For Who's There? we were experimenting with ways to encapsulate digital culture and we wanted to utilise a kind of ‘viral dramaturgy’ that draws new technologies into service, and examines assumptions about how we pass ideas, ethics and gestures to one another. Zoom as a play-text; a performance in a digital form that collapses old dichotomies between the live and the mediatised, between the virtual and the actual, is able to ask larger questions by virtue of the inter-medial affordances on the platform.
Now we’re moving on to Carol Brown and Victoria Chiu, who will be telling us about the virtual reality project that they’ve been working on for performance and education.
The project we're talking about is a Virtual Crossings Network Australia project with Melbourne, Geneva and Auckland. We're bringing artists together from three places: companies Cie Gilles Jobin in Switzerland and arc/sec in New Zealand initiated Virtual Crossings, and Jill’s tech team built and managed technology that we were crossing with. Carol and myself are in Melbourne at VCNA’s Track Lab with four dancers and two digital artists. Yinan Liou is joining us in New Zealand. She’s a digital architect who designed the worlds that the dancers interact with. We asked ourselves: what is a virtual stage? What can a virtual stage do? What can it become with tech embedded in it?
Virtual Crossings seeks to mine the imaginative possibilities offered by data cross-weaves through an embodied interface that enables us to meet, and be touched by each other, remotely. In a technologically mediated world, we’re interested in challenging whose stories get to shape our reality, through the work of technically savvy women of Asian, Australian and Pakeha New Zealand descent. From three different geo-cultural sites, we meet in a virtual landscape that is co-imagined and co-created. If dancing is a way of making space speak through embodied stories, this collaboration operates through a matrix of connections that spool through our different histories and situated perspectives. It creates a choreography of relations that are not place bound, but fluid, mobile and morphing. We open the taking place of performance to data flows as dancers of difference.
What are the mappings and connections to creativity, and how do we build relationships? An important connective medium was discord. We could all hear each other and speak to each other in real time. We had ear-pods and we were in the same discord group managed by Camilo de Martino and Hugo Cahn in Geneva. The relationships developing in this space are different to having everyone together in the same studio. The creative labour is different. There's no hierarchy, distinctions are blurred, there's agency for everybody; dancers, technicians, designers - we are all co-dependent. My labour was different. I questioned being called a choreographer in this space. I felt part of a co-creation. Maybe I was an XR (Extended Reality) co-creator. Personal relationships were built, originally Carol had worked with Yinan and I had worked with Gilles, and we were all learning how to work together through experimenting with real time motion capture.
Our choreography of relations involved a mutual co-presence that was many timed. We acknowledge the deep time of the unceded indigenous lands from where we are privileged to make and create. At the same time, we're operating on Australian Eastern Time, New Zealand Standard Time and Central European Time. All deviations from the 'imperial time' of Greenwich Mean Time. Being in these different time zones meant that our relational mapping always landed differently in our bodies, as we were in different stages of our circadian cycles. The Geneva artists worked in the morning. We were in the early evening in Melbourne, and Yinan was working late at night in Aotearoa, New Zealand. Our travels with virtuality enabled us to attend to ‘the other’ and their temporal reality on the other side of the world, or across the Tasman Sea in Aotearoa. For the Martinique poet, Édouard Glissant, it is in taking up the problems of the other that we find ourselves. From Auckland, Yinan developed a virtual performance landscape comprising a field of bubbles that spoke to the differentiated experiences of our ‘corona spheres’ (as they've been titled by Kate Elswick), navigated through masks and socially distanced interactions in the physical world.
The body moves with the technology, like sensing a dance partner, and seeks to find affinity with embodying the improvisational score. It's following and tuning to the digital world. The bubbles is an example of a space created by Yinan Liu that we developed in collaboration with her. We had two dancers in this scene - Susanna in Geneva and Isabelle in Melbourne - and Yinan was operating from New Zealand.
Moving between and across virtual spaces and performance landscapes went beyond having a fixed origin or identity. We also acknowledged the very real experiences we were having in the midst of a global pandemic of isolated bubbles. Finding ways to interact through the membranes was both a metaphor and a necessity for the dancers as a complex reciprocity permeated a digitally woven world.
The project itself is not a satellite around Europe, but a real crossing, a virtual crossing. There's a dramaturgy of crossings. Yinan and I are both of Asian descent - I'm an Asian Aussie and she's an Asian New Zealander - so we're situated differently. We have experienced different forms of discrimination that arise from white settler history. This pilot project and how it operates decolonises the notion of Asian satellites around white settlers, and also de-centres the notion of Australia satellites around Europe. We have hope for what this pilot will grow into and we're pursuing our own projects, projects that can develop this new localism, developing new crossings with our landscapes and our local stories, and not satellites.
Dance migrates across bodies and borders when transposed through data-streams that evoke sensation and kinaesthetic effect, by tuning into the movement of 'the other'. Our crossings became virtual sites for a multiplicity of embodied actions - both corporeal and incorporeal - in their presence. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a crossing as a meeting or passing; a passing over a line, a threshold, a boundary from one side of the world to another, one coast to another. The crossing can draw a line across a surface, it can mark, it can intersect. A crossing makes connections between our different lines of work, of thoughts, of languages, to cross, to weave, to connect.
Following up your project of connections, I’m going to speak about the current work that I am working on with Luke George from Melbourne called Hundreds + Thousands. Luke and I have been working together since 2014 and we are interested in the politics of audienceship and questions of relationality: what happens when you bring a group of people together to have an experience instigated by performers? In our earlier work, we were working with bondage, camping knots and macrame, using knots and ropes to explore relational politics. In our subsequent work together in 2018, we wanted to start with the question of the female gaze and what it might mean for to gay identifying males to practise the female gaze. We quickly realized with the onset of the #MeToo movement that this was going to be very tricky to navigate, with two men speaking on behalf of women.
After a period of exploration, we decided to work with plants. We were thinking about an organic body that might allow us to practice this idea of displacing ourselves, to have a glimpse of another. We were looking at plants as mediators, as fellow audiences and as fellow performers. What might it mean to be looked at by plants, speak to plants, interact with plants and to make a show for plants. We started in 2018 and were meant to premiere the work, involving one hundred plants and one hundred spectators in 2020, but that never happened. We were struggling, because although we had enough funding to continue the work - working with artists from Taiwan, Australia, Philippines and Singapore - we didn’t have enough funding to finish the work. With all the other stresses of postponement and cancellation for our creative development, the project very quickly evolved into an adaptation.
When we finally were able to show something in the National Gallery in Singapore in March 2021, it was nonetheless an adaptation, whereby I was the only live performer, and all the other artistic collaborators were either performing remotely or using pre-recorded material. It was far from an ideal situation, but we learned a lot of things about how to work with each other, to work remotely and to be able to really think about how the plant might be able to inform our process. What happened to our surprise, with lockdowns happening everywhere, it was an interesting phenomenon that everywhere in the world people were either rushing to baking supplies stores or they were buying plants. It also felt like we were ourselves becoming like watered plants; stuck in situ with limited ability to connect with one another.
The idea of tending to plants and organic growth, of networking and communicating, cohered with how we could understand ‘plant philosophy’ or ‘plant physiology’. All of this became a metaphor that really informed our process to the extent that we started to think about the performance no longer as a finished quasi-object which is static - you finish it, premiere it and then you tour it from city to city - instead, we embraced the idea that maybe the work is never finished or that it has already begun; that its germination, propagation, proliferation and growth are already happening. We also made in tandem with this a 24-minute film and in the end, it was seen by 27 000 people, as opposed to the one hundred or so people who saw it in the gallery space itself. That got us thinking about what else is happening in the work, or rather, what is the work?
We were invited to work with Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, West Kowloon in Hong Kong and Life Works in Sydney for more presentations this year and next year. We took the opportunity to gather everybody together and ask: what if we do this as a coordinated effort? What if we work together to see the work growing like a garden? We knew we were going to perform in these three cities, but what if we could meet potential audiences one year in advance? What if we were to meet them via an online engagement process? We have designed a three-stage process and stage one involves working with fifty-one participants from these three cities. We drew up an online process that involved speaking to them, sending them digital and physical parcels and then we collated their responses. What was very enlightening at the end of stage one was the knowledge and expertise these people brought with them. We met academics, philosophers, florists, environmental activists, people who have tended community gardens, a woman who gave her friend a plant sixteen-years ago because she was leaving town and this friend joined her for stage one and she still has that plant with her, and there was sex worker who – sometimes in lieu of money – exchanged plant cuttings with her clients. Some people decided to go on an archaeological dig: going to creeks to dig out golf balls, scouring pets that were buried in the soil for years and years.
For stage two, we will begin to grow some of these mini projects. These mini projects will range from writing some papers to taking pictures and so on, and we will continue to seed more projects. When we reach stage three, we will finally arrive in these three cities and integrate some of these local projects into our live performance. We will show all these different digital artefacts or live presentations from the participants, and then it will evolve into the evening programme where we perform our one-hour score, and we will design other activities depending on the conditions and the local expectations from each of our presentation partners.
Engagement, spectatorship and the idea of kinaesthetic empathy: how do you respond to this? Do you miss the body-to-body engagement for a live audience?
The conventions of spectatorship have shifted so much since we first staged Who's There? By the time I dramaturged my second digital work, we knew that audience attention spans had changed, and we had to shift the way that we engaged with the audience. For example, we took inspiration from video games and walking simulators and created a very short performance experience that generated different kinds of engagement and participation and brought out thoughts about freedom of choice. In terms of what's happening right now, I just came from a convention where they were live streaming a play, and so this is now the standard: a hybrid form where you have a live audience, which is very much compromised by social distancing, and then it's simultaneously live streamed to a much wider global audience.
My view is that hybrid work should go beyond that format and ask why this particular work needs to be hybrid. We had an intention of doing a hybrid work before lockdown restrictions thwarted our plans, but that work was comprised of two parts: part one was going to be staged live and part two would enable the same audience to tune in digitally. It was about mother-daughter relationships, and the digital aspect would explore the ‘digital spaces’ of a mother daughter relationship that we don't typically see, with being able to do some digital snooping and to peek into the private lives of these two characters. That’s why we decided on a hybrid work before we had to actually shift it all to digital at the end.
What does it mean for you to engage body-to-body, especially with digital audiences that are inhabiting different realities, times and spaces?
I’m very interested in looking at the layers of performance and how they're governed by the layers of lockdown restrictions. I would love to be able to bring a live audience into our space and I think it would be quite a different show to have a live audience watch how we do it. Part of that show is seeing how the technology works, and really breaking it down for the audience to see what we're doing and to imagine what they're doing in Geneva, as well as seeing the digital space and world created. There’s two live spaces: there's a live audience in Geneva and a live audience in Melbourne, and it would be great to have a live audience in New Zealand. Getting that far is quite hard with lockdown as well as technology as well as time zones. But those different layers are really interesting and I'd love to be an audience member there.
We see it as a continuation of a long history of dance's relationship to technology and to the shadow life of the performing body. It always has an expanded potential through its virtual powers, whether that is through technological mediation or through the imagination, so I don't see it as a huge break. I think it's an acceleration of what's already been happening in dance over the last twenty to thirty years, with digital interfaces and interactivity. The difference is that the accessibility of this technology has enabled us to create this attunement. It's quite an extraordinary experience to be dancing with your avatar and another person's avatar, but to also be physically dancing with other dancers in the space at the same time. We're creating a complex choreographic system that is speaking to the multi-layers that we experience in our day to day lives, while finding a way to kinaesthetically relate to that.
How does this change your way of looking at spectatorship or your engagement with spectators?
I’ve always been interested in the idea of the audience. The word audience represents a body that is both singular and plural. I've always been interested in the tension that exists in this word. How do you point to the heterogeneity of the audience? What happens when a group of people sit together to have that shared experience, while at the same time being aware that they might be viewing the same thing differently? In terms of ‘liveness’, what the fact of COVID-19 and lockdown has given me is the very fact that we begin to ask questions about ‘liveness’, whereas before we might have taken it for granted. What we might get instead is a sense of empathy or intimacy, a shared intimacy that doesn't come from the fact that I'm in the same space as you, but comes from the fact that I understand what you're going through. As we sit in the same room with our plants and we think about the same things, we have many things to talk about. That in itself gives us a different approach to liveness. These days I am also questioning the idea of the artist as a genius, as the sole author, and have become interested in more communal stories. How do we draw connections to one another, spotlight each other's efforts, especially if they are outside of the arts? If someone's working in the field of anthropology or working as a florist, how can we find a language to connect everybody's ideas together.
How does one create work for a live audience that also contains a digital audience? Do you see a distinction?
For me, the distinction between a live and a digital audience is one that has different qualities. Digital works remind us that these distinctions have broken down - the distinction between the live and the mediatised. Even in so-called ‘live’ physical performances, it's not as immediate as we tend to think it is. The same can be said with the digital. As for performance makers, I want to highlight how extremely physical I think these types of performances are. It's not just being a ‘digital self’, but you see the actors moving around all the time, being with us in their living spaces. It creates a kind of intimacy that is a different kind of intimacy than what we would have in a physical performance.
For me, it's hard to make a general distinction. I like the idea that we now have a greater array of choices to make. More possibilities. I find it very exciting. I would prefer to think of Hundreds + Thousands as moving towards a greater site specificity, context specificity and condition specificity. By the time we get to the city and perform live, the history and the narrative of the project will definitely be shared. But I don't think we will be choosing hybrid modes of presentation where there will be a live audience and a digital audience. I think it's important to respond to the actual and specific conditions of a presentation platform. What is it they need and how do we bring our work into close contact with that context?
From an audience's point of view, while all of these different versions could be referred to as 'hybrid', it might turn out for me that the performance is purely a live experience. Perhaps we should expand how we refer to our work?
As a dramaturg, I would not use the term 'hybridity' in my own performance projects, because I find it a little too academic. It might sound elitist of me to say that, but it's true. Sometimes words like 'hybrid' do not go down very well in programme notes, especially with audiences who just want to be entertained.
On the question of what determines a so-called hybrid performance: for communities of people with disabilities, there is a huge push now to keep hybridity going because it allows access. You can have a live stream performance and you can have a live present performance. We know that people with disabilities have problems accessing live performances, and there are now a lot of opportunities to see live performances that had been denied previously. I think there is another side to that argument as well around access from the audience's point of view.
I wanted to respond to Carol's earlier point about apprehending ourselves as dancers and artists, as well as the idea of the avatar and how we reflect this complexity for the audience. It's something that has become incredibly normalized in this day and age. Right now, we're looking at ourselves; I'm looking at myself; apprehending myself on Zoom. I think the task of virtual works and digital works might be to deconstruct that and de-familiarise it again, so that the audience can reflect on this construction, this new way of interpolating ourselves or identity formation.
This online panel conversation was part of the Dramaturgs’ Network’s 20th anniversary symposium, d’n20 on Saturday 20th November 2021. The event was curated by Katalin Trencsényi, was produced by her and Sarah Sigal, and organised by the d’n Board. This is an edited version of the recorded conversation. It was transcribed and edited by Lee Anderson.
Carol BROWN is an internationally established choreographer, artist-scholar and director from Aotearoa New Zealand. Together with composer Russell Scoones she founded Carol Brown Dances, a company renowned for the transdisciplinary reach of its collaborations, and for choreographies in unexpected places. Carol Brown Dances have toured Russia, Romania, Italy, USA, Austria, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Colombia and throughout New Zealand. Recent major works include the rooftop performance LungSong (EcoWest, 2019), the interactive dance-architecture, Singularity (Ars Electronica, Linz 2017) and PAH in collaboration with Gillian Whitehead and Star Gossage (Auckland Arts Festival 2015). She writes regularly for peer-reviewed journals on performance, technology and space from a feminist perspective and supervises artistic doctoral research. In 2019 she was appointed Head of Dance and Professor of Choreography at the University of Melbourne. (WEBSITE)
Dr CHENG Nien Yuan is a Singaporean performance scholar, educator and dramaturg. Nien completed her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Sydney in 2020. Her work involves the politics and poetics of storytelling in the digital age. Since the pandemic, she has been a dramaturg for several works of digital theatre, including Who’s There? (2020), commissioned by New Ohio Theatre's Ice Factory Festival, and (un)becoming (2021), for T:>Works’ N.O.W Festival. Her research has been published on Critical Stages, Studies in Theatre and Performance, and Performance Paradigm. Nien is currently researching intercultural acting pedagogy at the Intercultural Theatre Institute. (WEBSITE)
Victoria CHIU trained at the VCA, Melbourne, Australia. Chiu’s practice investigates physicalising concepts in relation to histories of self, peoples and place and she works at intersections of dance, screen and technology. Chiu’s work is culturally significant and will continue giving voice to diverse bodies as they contribute to today’s global movement landscape. Chiu has collaborated, performed and toured extensively with European, Australian, Singaporean, Chinese and New Zealand companies and artists. Collectively her choreographic work including The Ballad of Herbie Cox, Floored,Do You Speak Chinese?, Fire Monkey, Grotto, Viral, What Happened In Shanghai, Genetrix and Soursweet have been presented in Europe, North America, China and Australia. (WEBSITE)
Daniel KOK studied BA Fine Art & Critical Theory (Goldsmiths College, London, 2001), MA Solo/Dance/Authorship (HZT, Berlin, 2012) and Advanced Performance and Scenography Studies (APASS, Brussels, 2014). In 2008, he received the Young Artist Award (Dance) for the National Arts Council (Singapore). His performances have been presented across Asia, Europe, Australia and North America, notably in the Venice Biennale, Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin), AsiaTOPA (Melbourne) and Festival/Tokyo. He is the artistic director of Dance Nucleus (Singapore) and curates the annual da:ns Lab at the Esplanade (Singapore). (WEBSITE)
Malaysian born LIM How Ngean has been actively involved in the performing arts for 30 years, practising both in Malaysia and Singapore. He has dramaturged dance for the Singapore Arts Festival and Singapore’s Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, with critically acclaimed Singaporean choreographers Daniel Kok, Joavien Ng, Kuik Swee Boon and Ming Poon, and Thailand’s Pichet Klunchun and Phnom Penh-based Amrita Performing Arts. In 2016 How Ngean founded the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (ADN), a platform for critical exchange on dramaturgy among dramaturgs and performance-makers in the Asian region.