《球賽》／攝 ：Cheung Chiwai（照片由多空間提供）
事實上，香港表演場地的單一早已廣受詬病，過分依賴政府場地的弊端在疫情之下更加暴露無疑。一旦政府場地關停，藝團便無法演出，就連排練也可能找不到地方。此時反而有機會讓藝團嘗試發掘坊間其他私人或商業空間，擴展未來演出的可能。早前，新約舞流本應前往挪威參加國際舞蹈節 CODA Oslo International Dance Festival的《Maze 3.0》，因疫情令行程受阻，所以改為以網上直播的方式演出，並找到南豐紗廠作為表演場地，而這獨特的空間就為作品賦上了新意。
A Year in the Pandemic: Interviewing Small and Medium-sized Dance Groups – The Double-edged Sword of Online Performances
Original text: Wei Wei
Translator: Chermaine Lee
Shooting Maze / Photo: Maurice Lai (Photo provided by Passoverdance)
Online performances have proliferated during the global pandemic. While it remains to be seen whether cyberspace will become the new venue for ‘live’ performances, over the past year small and medium-sized local dance groups have developed a love-hate relationship with these digitalized programmes. While they are glad that these provide a viable way for artists to perform when theatres and venues are forced to shut, they cannot help worrying about the ongoing side effects and the immense differences in creative logic from working in the theatre.
When the pandemic is set to become the ‘new normal’, how should small and medium-sized dance groups review the experience of the past year, and plan the theatre’s future? We invited members of various different dance groups to share their insights.
Digitalization - a double-edged sword
The pandemic has hampered live performances immensely, prompting art groups to put their shows online. Digitalizing art performances may well become the norm not just during but also after the pandemic.
“With financial aid from the government, Passoverdance invited several independent artists to make dance videos, seeking to explore unknown areas in the current challenging situation,” says Elaine Kwok, a core member of Passoverdance.
Difficulties breed opportunities: organizing online shows might be a temporary measure for the pandemic, but it also inspires new thoughts, she adds.
“For instance, when we explore the relationship between digitalization, dance and our bodies, we can think about whether it impacts creativity or enhances the performance. A major benefit from this struggle [the constant opening and closing of theatres] is that we have had to work hard to stay flexible and keep reviewing our decisions.
“We’ve got to a point where the concept of ‘time’ doesn’t even exist, as we can have meetings whenever we want to, and allow artists to try things any time they like. Time is stretched to such an extent that it’s become elusive in this technological era,” she says.
“On the other hand, however, we need to ask whether such rapid decision-making and rapid responses are actually contrary to creativity. We need to reflect on the moments of preparation, being able to give ideas a chance to brew, the time and life experience that go into the creative process. These thoughts have constantly been on our minds in the past year.”
For small and medium-sized dance groups with limited resources, digitalizing their work presents a number of challenges. The first is filming: it takes more than recording a performance with a camera to turn their work into online work, an impeccable combination of lighting, venue, angle transition and editing is needed… All radically different from the creative logic of a theatre performance.
To these dance groups, this means nothing less than learning from scratch, and they have a huge need for technical support. If they hire professional video production and filming teams to handle this, the process will become quite complex, as it takes so much compromise and communication with the production crew to ensure an accurate presentation of the work. It also makes the cost of production shoot up, which not all art groups can afford.
Yim Ming-yin, Outreach and Education Director at Y-Space, says it was “a tough experience” to fulfil their contract and transform theatre production Matches into a video version. Since it was supposed to be a live performance in the theatre, instead of tailor-made for film, the requirements for choreography, direction, dance and music changed completely. To make things worse, the show was suspended when the venue was shut at short notice, so the team were grasping at straws to complete the video production in a limited time.
Jacky Yu, Artistic Director of the E-Side Dance Company, prefers to postpone live performances rather than digitalize them.
“Dance videos and theatre performances are not the same,” he says. “There are many free shows available online nowadays. Should we follow suit? We decided that we would insist on performing live instead of going online. [If we do shows online] It costs a lot to pay for music royalties. Even if you hire your own composer there’s still a cost, so this brings a lot of limitations. Hiring a film crew is also quite expensive.”
“We’d rather postpone our live shows. We can take a break while theatres are shut and use the time to review our work. Different time, different environment, different ways to live. The most important thing is to relax and think.”
New lessons to be learnt: internet marketing
On top of digitalizing performances, another challenge for these groups to take on is the marketing of their online shows – from selecting the online platforms for uploading the videos, to allocating resources for promotion, to setting prices for viewers to access the programmes.
Kelvin Mak, Artistic Director of Beyond Dance Theatre, points out that art groups in Hong Kong have not put enough resources into internet marketing, despite the government supporting the digitalization of artwork.
“For instance, how do we place an advertisement? How do we understand the features of different platforms in a professional manner? How do we target certain groups instead of wasting money on advertising too broadly?” he asks.
“There’s a paucity of such development in Hong Kong. How do we attract more viewers to contemporary and modern dance? Do we have to stop our production work and focus on internet marketing? Not necessarily, but paradoxes are gradually emerging.”
Shirley Lam, Company Manager of Passoverdance, depicts the difficulties they face in positioning their shows on internet marketing, due to the discrepancies between the expectations of producers and viewers.
“It was the start of the pandemic, when many overseas companies were providing free-of-charge online shows. Because these large-scale organizations were offering shows for free to audiences, people wondered why we were charging them [to watch our shows],” she says.
“However, people haven’t thought about how we have got our work cut out for us: as a small art group, production is no easy task, not to mention the much higher cost of hiring a film crew compared to doing live shows. While people think that everything online should be free-of-charge, we actually have to spend a lot of time and money to make this happen.”
“It was hard for us to decide what to do. On the one hand we wanted more people to watch our shows, but on the other, we needed to minimize our losses in a very trying time. At the time, we didn’t know how long the pandemic would last, so we charged viewers a price close to that of attending a live performance. In the end sales were not ideal, as expected.”
Lam suggests the industry should put the emphasis on changing viewers’ mindset. “Not everything online should be free-of-charge.”
The knowledge gap between producers and viewers has to be bridged to open a path of communication.
In addition to the issue of pricing, she adds that after the past year there’s a need to re-examine and explore using different online platforms for promotion.
“The platforms or channels through which we used to promote are losing clients: for example we used to rely a lot on Facebook and Instagram, but many people are leaving those sites. The remaining users are not our target audience. Young people and secondary school students don’t go on Facebook much anymore,” she explains.
“When we digitalize our shows, we have to adapt to not only the differences between online and live production, but also the changes in the marketing environment.”
Asked how to keep the attraction of the old channels and also appeal to the younger audience via new platforms, Lam admits the group is still looking for the answer.
“It’s very difficult!” she says. “MeWe is the hottest platform today, then tomorrow Clubhouse comes along … People are scattered over different platforms. Mastering the art of allocating resources to the right platforms has become challenging and time-consuming.”
Tailoring artwork to different mediums
For art groups and artists, amidst the vast wave of online shows, the biggest conflict comes down to the tug of war between video and live performances. Future artwork brainstorming sessions inevitably revolve around the same questions: What is the nature of performance art? What will the theatre of the future look like?
To Mak, turning performances created for the theatre into online shows is not an option, as it’s impossible to present the same artwork in these two very different mediums.
“Digitalizing a theatre performance for us is a little messed up: we specialize in the theatre, so presenting our productions in a filmic style doesn’t actually work. It’s not fair to either the art groups and artists, or the audience,” he says.
“Viewers can choose their preferred angles in a theatre – like zeroing in on a specific artist they like – but the camera only provides one single angle, shot and point of view. It’s very different from live performance, which allows everyone to have their own ideas and use their own imagination.
“It’s not fair to the choreographer as he or she wants to provide a space [for the show], but now this space is being put into a box. The magic of lighting and music on the stage is completely different from film.”
Instead of rejecting video production, Mak suggests tailor-making performances for different mediums. He says he has refused to turn the company’s current theatre productions into online versions and would rather launch new digital art projects with government support. He is currently working on a dance movie employing the creative concept of a camera to design the scenes and movement, so that he is not forcing a theatre work into a camera lens.
Expanding the possibilities for performance venues
If theatre performances seek to bring people closer together, do online shows invariably create distance between them and thus go against the original purpose to some extent? Amidst different anti-COVID measures, such as social distancing rules and limited attendance numbers, theatre production is increasingly subject to constraints. What will the theatre of the future look like?
“It’s dangerous that people are relying more and more on digitalization,” Kwok warns. “We can’t let the government think that we can simply digitalize our work during the pandemic. In the end, live performances belong in the theatre with its unique language. I don’t think digitalization is the only way forward for our industry, and in any case that’s impossible because it’s an entirely different field.”
“We have to get our audience and the government to understand that, although technological advances are here, theatres don’t have to vanish. We have to talk to the government about how to facilitate normal operation for theatres.”
Yim mentions the snowballing limitations theatre artists have been facing in recent years in creation and performances. During the global health crisis, will changes in artists and art groups extend to the fundamental principles and definition of theatre itself?
“Maybe we don’t have to perform in a theatre – for example, I brought my students outdoors last month. If policies change abruptly during the pandemic, should we consider using other types of space?”
In fact, the limited nature of Hong Kong’s performance venues has long been notorious, and the over-dependence on government venues has been further exposed during the pandemic. When public facilities are closed, art groups are left with no way to perform or even rehearse.
Nonetheless, this can be an opportunity for art groups to look elsewhere for private or commercial space. When Passoverdance’s trip to Norway to present Maze 3 at the CODA Oslo International Dance Festival was cancelled due to COVID, the work was turned into an online live show at The Mills in Tsuen Wan. The unique space brought a new meaning to the production.
“Be it in an outdoor site or a commercial space, we can expand the range of potential performance venues,” says Kwok. “This is the era we are living in now, and we cannot go back to pre-COVID times.
“Can we widen the possibilities of performance venues for greater flexibility and viability? We can’t just tackle the challenges brought about by the pandemic by having artists put their work online. At the end of the day, we want to return to the language of live performance,” she adds.
“We mustn’t forget the immediacy of dance, that it’s a live experience, one which takes place right here, right now.”
Photo: dance journal/hk Editorial Team
Feature journalist, dance lover.