The Intervention of Loneliness

The aesthetics of decision-making
By Dandan Liu (26th February 2023)

“I choose slow dance also because I see it as an act of resistance against the visual aestheticisation and spectacularity of dance. I want to move away from producing beautiful forms, and move towards creating connective actions and encounters […].”

15th October 2020. On the eve of his online performance of “The Intervention of Loneliness”, Ming posted in his social media the above choreographic note about dance performance that does not provide the spectators with an aesthetic experience through the contemplation of danced, choreographed movement. As a choreographer who has had a long professional career as a company dancer, Ming represents an artistic position that seeks to liberate dance on stage from the “tyranny of the eyes”.

The touches and interactions between two dancing bodies evoke new interoceptive spaces of experience in the body that cannot be perceived from the outside. Sense of smell, sense of touch, sense of balance, the proprioception of muscles and joints – a range of sensory organs and receptor cells are stimulated in this process to sensitively perceive the subtle interplay of forces between pulling and pushing, pressing and rising, as well as the unspoken intentions of the other person. Such an intimate experience usually happens outside the institutionalised art context, for example, in ballrooms or clubs. So what changes when you slow dance in a performance like “The Intervention of Loneliness”, coming under the spotlight and the observation of other spectators?

Theatre spectatorship is not extraneous in this performance, but plays a central active role in its creation. The participatory gaze of the spectators is a driving factor for the performance’s dramaturgy, which locates the physical experience of slow dance in a reflexive framework and opens up new interpretive spaces for it. As dramaturge, I have been working with Ming since 2020 on different models of audience collaboration, which vary according to the performative situation, the audience’s role, and the form of participation, among other things. Each model has its own aesthetic quality. The peculiarity of audience involvement in “The Intervention of Loneliness” lies not in the dance, but the act of deciding that becomes the object of theatrical spectatorship and forms the dramatic arc in the performance’s aesthetic effect.

Who would like to dance with the hapless person on stage, standing so awkwardly and lonely with a sign that says “dance with me”? It is a request that addresses all the spectators present, but is also addressing to no one in particular. The longer this person stands on stage, the more pressured the spectators feel in their seats. The collective waiting for something to happen and for the show to continue slowly becomes a silent, action-less struggle that the spectators wage with each other and with themselves. The pressure of having to decide is accompanied by a wide range of inner emotions that spans from longing and curiosity to embarrassment, from fear of contact to urge to act. These opposing sensations do not override each other, but reinforce each other. Does one want to go along with it at all? If so, when and with whom? How would it have felt if I were now the one standing on stage or dancing with someone? Every step that the other spectators make, is thrown back onto oneself. The orientation of their watchful gaze constantly shifts and reverses.

Every trivial decision becomes a particularly dramatic act in this situation. The flow of time loses its regularity and consistency. The decision of individual spectators determines how fast they could collectively proceed to the next stages of the performance, like passing the different levels in a video game. Individual behaviour and collective experience exist in a direct feedback loop here. Feeling and watching; looking and being looked at; waiting and acting; the inner and outer perspective on slow dance are entangled in a reciprocal system, which oscillate according to the position and decision of the spectator in the moment. The vulnerable state of standing alone on stage, not knowing who will pick you up, is perhaps bearable and even enjoyable precisely because you can finally relinquish control and give others the power to decide how the performance will unfold.

A social experiment about the desire for physical contact online
By Dandan Liu (1st October 2020) for the online format

Although nowadays most of our social needs can be met online, physical encounters have remained indispensable to our social life. The omnipresence of the staged, perfect body images in the media does not quench our desire for physical body contact; rather it only serves to suspend it, making it even more sought after. In his online interactive performance “Intervention of Loneliness (Lockdown Edition)”, Ming Poon probes further into the lack of physical contact. The meanings behind his attempt to slow dance online lie not in merely trying to simulate physical closeness with strangers, which is currently not possible anyway due to the coronavirus regulations. Slow dance here is a metaphor for the temporary relationships with someone we just meet, which are always full of uncertainty, tension and surprise. These relationships require certain hurdles to be overcomed first, such as the odour of a stranger’s body and the fear of rejection or harassment. To touch is an act of acceptance and to hold is a recognition of the other person. While the first step to slow dance – inviting an unknown person – may appear to be risky at first, the dance itself is actually an ongoing process of negotiations and commitments. It requires close observation and perceptive sensing. Only by paying close attention to the subtle play of forces between the pull and the push, the leaning and the raising, as well as the subtle interpretation of unspoken intentions of the other person, can a slow dance work.

Since the whole dimensions of olfactory, haptic and sensorimotor perceptions are lost through the screen, the audience in “The Intervention of the loneliness (Lockdown Edition)” need to redefine for themselves what slow dance online exactly means. Although the digital space offers certain security, it also makes the physical distance and separation between two bodies clearly insurmountable. The audience will always be facing their isolation, questioning themselves – am I really dancing with another person or am I only dancing with its video image in the small window on Zoom? Or even sadder, am I actually dancing with my own video image? In the digital age, the biggest problem for human beings is not the split between body and mind, but the split between body and its media representation. The experiment about touching each other online is, from the very onset, an impossible task, but the failure can make us think about the digital human relationship from another perspective. 

The audience is invited to solve this absurd task by the performer Ming Poon. He has been working on different forms of audience collaboration since 2010 and developed various strategies to trigger collective action through individual decisions made by the audience. His role in the performance can be likened to a “facilitator” of a leaderless resistance or a “catalyst” of social movements – he shares his personal concerns with the audience, who then decide for themselves individually, how they want to respond. Instead of using the terms “participatory” or “interactive”, Ming describes his performances as “audience collaborations”. The word “collaboration” is an acknowledgement that the actions of the audience is also a kind of labour. But it is labour that is not economically viable and results-oriented. The aim of this labour is to create a spontaneous dance by moving together, without pre-arrangement. As soon as the audience understands the rules of engagement, Ming takes a step back and gives the audience the stage.

It is important for me, as the dramaturg of this project, to reflect on what an artistic approach to digital corporeality can be, which differs from social media or live streaming tools, like Instagram, Tinder or Tiktok. For me, the keywords are  unfreedom and frustration. If we want to dance in “The Intervention of Loneliness (Lockdown Edition)”, then we also have to accept that our perhaps embarrassing action will be seen by others. There is no convenient anonymity nor private space for us to hide in. Moreover, we can no longer treat the body of another person as an object of consumption. We cannot simply swipe left or right, or ghost them at any moment, like in online dating apps. We have to constantly work on responding to the other person’s impulses and staying connected to them. In contrast to the apps, which promise their users maximum freedom with minimal amount of commitment, the experience of “The Intervention of the loneliness (Lockdown Edition)” centres around discomfort, effort and the sense of responsibility.