On resolving tensions of digitising art and portraying wildlife in media with Angela Liong
Local contemporary dance company Arts Fission has been creating dance performances that respond to changing human sensibilities and everyday life in modern Asia since 1994. Themes surrounding wild beasts have grazed Arts Fission’s work since 2020.
The Ballroom of Magnificent Beasts is the company’s latest iteration in this focus, a digital dance programme created as part of Got to Move 2021. Through Augmented Reality (AR) filters, families can don avatar masks of majestic creatures and the backdrop of their living rooms can transform into a gilded grand ballroom.
Artistic director Angela Liong talks to B-Side about her creative process. She shares about integrating technology as an artmaker, letting us in on the inspirations behind the piece and its intentions.
Creativity during the pandemic
Angela’s dance-making draws from the pulses of everyday life. Her work reflects some of the anxiety revolving around fading traditions and cultures in a globalised world. With Arts Fission she has led decades of site-specific dance and performances in public spaces across Singapore.
As a veteran artist, the global pandemic has not affected Angela’s creative work at the core. While logistics are in flux, the Cultural Medallion recipient believes that practicing artists like herself have long cultivated their own discipline and approach to work.
“I guess there is a natural survival instinct to snap out of it as soon as possible. I didn’t want to over emphasise COVID. I wanted to move forward. Lucky for us, we’re able to pick up and inch forward, and inching is better than nothing.”
Angela overcomes external challenges by embracing the time to conduct more research. One research strand explored was the bestial theme, which stemmed from the sense of incarceration and confinement that bottled up since the circuit breaker. Angela compares her creative urges to the feelings of an entrapped wild beast. The company has explored the bestial theme in their works, The Secret Room of Bestiary and Where the Wild Beasts Feed, addressing urban living as well as the growing apathy and loss of connection to the environment.
Welcoming families to The Ballroom
Arts Fission applies their bestial exploration through a piece that fosters imagination and bonding among families with young children. With families retreating into the safety of more indoor activities, The Ballroom of Magnificent Beasts offers audiences with young children a platform to dance together from the comfort of their homes.
Audiences and participants can choose from avatar masks inspired by creatures from the medieval Book of Beasts. The creatures are an amalgamation of different felines, aviaries, and primates, which are partly imagined and partly found in the wild today. “Once the masks attach to the audiences’ faces [on screen], they can mimic facial expressions.”
Parents and older siblings are also encouraged to take young children by the hand and dance together in a virtual ballroom. Angela explains the inspiration behind the elaborate design, which introduces visuals of classical European ballrooms, featuring the architecture of a gilded environment or an imperial courtroom.
In this ballroom, families can engage in spatial movements, guided by instructions such as swaying side-to-side and raising one’s arms.
“The magic of turning everyday gestures into a dance context is a unique experience for non-dancers. And the opportunity to perform these gestures with family in a familiar environment adds poetic ambience and warmth to the good old living room.”
Angela explains that the main purpose of the project aims to promote familial bonding through the injection of daily movement.
“Most children attend enrichment classes all by themselves, so we’re hoping to engage the very young all the way to the very old.” Angela is fascinated by the idea of having unexpected pairings of dance partners spanning across generations. “If only I could get my father back in the early 90s to dance with me; we couldn’t do that then,” she says wistfully.
Realities of going digital
While technology is an enabler for artists to transport audiences to fantastical domains in just a few quick taps on a screen, many artists still grapple with the medium in their artmaking. In their digital venture for Ballroom, the Arts Fission team struggled to adapt their fundamental craft to connect with a live audience and rethink ways of injecting human warmth back into the performance.
“I’m sorry to say this, but I’m afraid the digital field is not ready for us artists.” Angela states. She observes that in the rush of going digital, output and aesthetics may not often live up to artists’ visions. She notes that while the most established tech companies are trained for commercial work, “art-making is a whole different ball game.”
Complex and layered ideas for performances sometimes cannot be accommodated due to factors like time constraints, funding resources, and the general lack of digital expertise. Original ideas are ultimately rendered into flatter dimensions. “All of this has been curtailed down to a very static frame. I have to address the digital DNA, which is visual and fast like social media culture,” Angela adds. She compares the limitations they faced in digitising dancemaking to the stagnation and restrictions COVID bears on everybody.
“The artistic team must learn to resolve this big creative tension and scramble to make the event interesting and engaging.”
Angela chooses instead to focus on employing the digital to foster family ties and stimulate a curiosity about wildlife despite technical challenges.
Lessons from the wild
Angela believes that all artists have the mission to put forth ideas that go beyond tickling the senses for a brief moment. They must enrich perspectives while at play. “I’d be very lucky if participants become curious about the magnificent creatures,” she says optimistically about her underlying intention to raise awareness about nature.
The recurrence of bestial themes in Arts Fission’s work stems from the biodiversity mindset the company adopts. This is a response to the examination of ongoing tensions between human and wildlife habitats. “Wildlife often served as moral fables to teach people to be good. How has this changed today?” Angela ponders as she traced the reverence of animals in the ancient times, through people’s beliefs and animal symbolism in religions.
The Ballroom of Magnificent Beasts hopes to provide an alternative take on wildlife, veering family viewers away from the commercialised domestication of wildlife rampant in popular culture. “There are so many Hollywood films where wild animals speak like stand-up comedians. While this may be entertainment, seeing too much of this [portrayal of wildlife] can affect the youth and may hurt them someday. Imagine a child might come close to a wild boar, treat it like a pet and perhaps get bitten, yet not understand why.” Angela adds, describing the naivety and potential consequence of depicting wildlife carelessly in popular culture. She stresses the importance of creating more sensitive interpretations of wild animals and imaginary beasts in the media.
“I think we need to learn to respect the distance [between wildlife and humans]. This can be applied to human relationships, too. Let us respect distance and differences, allowing everything to exist and thrive.”
Arts Fission continues to explore co-existence and harmony with nature in upcoming projects like Imagine Ocean.