The 51st HK Arts Festival

Stepping into the unknown

Text / Jan Wong

Together with Tamanoir Immersive Studio, Hong Kong artists Enoch Cheng and Sudhee Liao have created First Steps, a seminal performance that combines dance with an interactive immersive experience. Presented by Cheng as Dramaturge, Adapter and Associate Director (Cantonese version) and Sudhee Liao as Associate Choreographer, First Steps invites 24 participating audience members to join five professional dancers on stage and share something quite remarkable. The participants are asked to put on headphones and unfurl into a series of movements as they follow audio instructions, while the 200 spectating audience members remain in their seats and watch the performance unfold.

In terms of authenticity

The inventiveness of the show might make it a literal "first step" for both the participants and the local audience alike. The involvement of nonprofessional dancers, possible technical difficulties, as well as differences in culture, language and expectations, are among the many challenges this transregional collaboration has faced. "It's quite an effort," admits Cheng.

Guaranteed, First Steps is not like any other performance by non-professional dancers. "Most of the regular people we see in performances today are more or less trained before going on stage. They know what they are doing and are proactive. They all have the right to initiate even if invited." In contrast, the people on stage in First Steps could be anyone who bought a ticket to the show. They have no idea what they will be dealing with or what they will have to do. "It's like getting a ticket to a theme park, but not knowing if it has the thrills you're looking for." Whether the performance turns out to be a success or not, all participants will emote and move in real time. "Even if all our presumptions fail, we will have elicited real reactions."

Liao, Cheng's long-time collaborator, took an immediate interest in the project, believing that it felt special from the start. "First Steps is not a regular dance performance, but involves more self-initiative body movements. It's more sensual and immersive than others, as audience members are both participants and spectators." The challenges and inventiveness of the project were both interesting to Liao, a contemporary dance graduate from The Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts who is originally from Singapore but has been based in Hong Kong for more than 10 years. In First Steps, Liao is tasked with arranging movements for both the dancers and the participating audience, while keeping in mind the entirety of the miseen-scène, as well as music and lighting arrangements. "For one, I wouldn't call it 'dancing'," Liao says. "It's still unclear what constitutes 'dance'. Is pacing around considered dancing? Or does it take a few more spins before it becomes a dance'?" She sees no need for the audience to be concerned if they don't have any experience with the medium, since the choreography is designed for everyone of all ages and genders.

As a multimedia artist, Cheng's practice involves moving images, installation, dance, theatre and curation, performance, among others. He laid the groundwork for First Steps by diving into an avalanche of research material and textual analysis, extracting from there the essence and motives embedded in the concept and weaving together a framework through which every party involved could communicate.

To ensure that the participants immediately understand the instructions and respond appropriately during the performances, Cheng is also responsible for translating and polishing the English or Chinese content that originates from French. Cheng may have completed his Master's degree in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, but he has still encountered challenges in trying to effectively deliver the instructions. Clarity, he says, might not always mean accuracy. "Take 'raising hands' as an example. If the raised hands are not levelled, will it still look presentable? Too much coordination might not work either. How participants will be able to act out the instructions naturally is something we also gave a lot of thought to." There are countless scenarios to consider, such as whether participants fail to grasp the situation fast enough, or even go so far as to refuse to act according to the instructions. "We do face a lot of uncertainties," said Cheng. "Every performance will be one of a kind."

But Liao emphasises that these "uncertainties" are what make the performance beautiful. To her, the event will also be intriguing from the spectators' point of view, since they will be able to identify varying personalities among the participants. "To witness them taking a first step is to see them grow," said Cheng. He sees First Steps as a pure theatre experience, one that allows participants to become more aware of their command over their own bodies through various movements. "Even if they fail, the experience is theirs and theirs only."

Jockey Club InnoArts Series: First Steps

Detail: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/firststeps