By Sebastian X Samur
In March 2020, reacting to increasing COVID-19 lockdown measures imposed by the New York state government, I found myself turning to an unexpected resource for activity: dance video games. With gyms, pools, children’s parks, and indoor play facilities closed, I needed to find new sources to keep my daughter active, which was especially challenging on cold, rainy days. Dancing at home provided one solution, which surprisingly yielded several discoveries pertaining to my own work in performance training. The game has served to underline essential qualities of in-person performance training, which live-streamed training substitutions have only been able to emulate with limited success. These insights have arisen in large part because both video games and in-person studio training are tailored to their respective performance spaces (home and studio), while live-streamed adaptations are a makeshift hybrid combining the two. In this short essay, I will present an initial analysis of four disruptions arising from live-stream training that have been highlighted through video-game training. These include breaks in: shared space, physical contact, rhythmic flow of experience, and establishment of stage presence.
Under lockdown conditions, the video game my daughter and I enjoyed together is Just Dance, a game that is released with annual editions, featuring choreographies for one to four people set to a mix of popular international dance songs. The game follows a similar gameplay format as titles such as Dance, Dance, Revolution; Guitar Hero; and Wii Fit. These games take advantage of increasingly improved controller and motion-capture technology to allow players to move their body in response to onscreen cues. In Just Dance, players select a song they wish to dance to––alone or in a group––and then copy the movements of an onscreen avatar dancing in time to the music (fig. 1).
The series is aimed at a younger, amateur audience, yet can feature sophisticated, high-level choreographies performed by professional dancers. This mix of an advanced level for a beginner audience demands that the game designers find a means to quickly and simply make the game accessible to players who are not necessarily experienced gamers nor trained dancers. The solution that has proven successful is in presenting silhouetted dancers for players to mirror, coupled with a series of simplified two-dimensional body illustrations (called pictos) showing each movement and a (generous) star scoring system that gradually awards points up to five stars when player movements match up with the video choreographies. Combined with the motion capture technology, Just Dance provides a digital means for quickly transmitting choreographies in a way that “analog” systems–– such as text-based descriptions, early twentieth-century mail-in dance lessons, or labanotation, for example––cannot (fig. 2).The result has been the creation of a community of millions of amateur dancers dancing at home, breaking a sweat, and improving, to varying degrees, their movement vocabularies as they try to obtain higher scores. Indeed, some players can reach a remarkably high degree of competence, as evinced in live world-cup events the developers have organized, demonstrating that the game can lead to genuine performance improvement through a scoring system that encourages repetitive practice.
Of course, this form of learning is no substitute for in-person teaching and rehearsal. In addition to lamenting the absence of performances during quarantine, lockdown alternatives such as Just Dance bring an appreciation for the performer’s behind-the-scenes work training and rehearsing in studio. The process of learning a new technique or building a performance as a collective––with its accompanying failures and successes, laughter and tears––is immeasurably more gratifying in studio than in the confines of a living room, with limited participants. However, under lockdown conditions, many artists and companies have been forced to choose between working digitally, adapting their working methods to account for pandemic safety measures, or waiting until next year, risking financial loss. Moving performance online offers numerous innovative possibilities to explore that are of potential interest to artists. One can reach a global audience, for example, work on camera technique, playing with the creative possibilities of the camera frame, or incorporate virtual accessories, among other benefits. In practice, however, the technological limitations have been stark, reinforcing the fact that direct human contact and co-presence is irreplaceable. While online performance offers the chance to improve camera technique, even this experience is quite limited, as generally no one else is in the room to aid with direction, lighting, sound, and so on; the cameras used are rarely designed for film performance and are usually fixed in place with limited settings; and no significant post-performance editing usually occurs. These problems are potentially compounded by issues related to connection lags, invariably leading to miscommunication and an overall experience that is subordinate to in-person work. Attempts at live-streaming performance-training sessions instead results in a hybrid form that does not adequately meet the demands of a single artistic medium, although new skills and discoveries may generate alternative artistic forms.
Perhaps the most important rupture in live-streamed training is that the space is no longer shared. Whereas with Just Dance the predominant relationship is between players and the screen, and in studio direct interpersonal relationships are easily established, with live-streamed training the screen creates a disruptive liminal boundary among performers. In these latter instances, each person is in a different room, potentially subject to interruptions and poor connections, with few common cues to affirm a communal experience. With Just Dance or in studio, participants are receptive to common environmental stimuli and can easily attune to each other in the shared space, leading to greater sensitivity toward one another as concentration is heightened. By contrast, engagement between the performer and audience online varies considerably. In some cases, a performer may ignore the camera or the “audience” participants are muted and have their cameras off. The experience is thus distinct from live performance, since the audience’s liveness is erased or paused. Where an audience is allowed to be seen online, it is difficult for a performer to navigate their focus as eye contact––a central gauge and connection for the audience in performance––is broken. This was the experience of an artist I recently interviewed, Aron de Casmaker, who attempted to teach clown technique online as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. With clown work, it is important to regularly check in with the audience, which becomes extremely challenging if laughter or other reactions are delayed. The overall experience is thus often clumsy and dissatisfying because it is difficult to accurately appraise the communication between performer and audience. In this way, Just Dance can be a more rewarding digital experience because it is specifically intended for interaction between players and the screen, with players essentially becoming their own audience (figs. 3–4). Indeed, this is affirmed through occasional in-game video recordings, which allow players to view their performances.
Physical contact is another major experience lacking in live-streamed performer training, and it is also largely absent in Just Dance’s solo gameplay. In Freeing the Natural Voice (1976), Kristin Linklater writes of her resistance to transmitting her practice through printed words. She states “How do you teach relaxation? By touching the pupil’s body and feeling whether the muscles are responding to the messages being sent to them. How do you induce a new use of the voice? By taking hold of the body and moving it in new directions which break conditioned, habitual movements” (4). Online, not only are performers unable to learn from an instructor’s physical touch, but they may be acquiring new, bad habits related to how they interface with a computer. With Just Dance, the game may equally promote bad habits (such as movement that is imprecise); however, the movement taught is purpose-built for the game itself, just as camera acting technique is purpose-built for film. With online performance training, classes and rehearsals are often conducted for a live performance mode (unless the work will result in a live-stream presentation). This hybrid form of training cannot suitably replace in-class skills building because the techniques developed are largely designed for the hybrid medium, rather than live, in-person stage work. We will only understand the full ramifications of this substitution in 2022 or later.
In addition to the lack of physical contact, dissatisfaction with online training arguably arises from its broken rhythms. In her book The Art of Making Dances (1959), dancer Doris Humphrey writes of the pleasure audiences receive in responding to a rhythm (107), and David Wiles, in Theatre and Time (2014), also writes of rhythm’s energizing ability (16). Rhythm in performance serves as a guide for audiences, allowing them to sense the tempo of a scene and react to its changes. As the rhythm of performance is frequently broken with live-streaming, it can be difficult to follow a performance, become wrapped up in its momentum, and create a meaningful engagement between performer and outside observers. It is consequently problematic to gauge success and progress in training or rehearsal. This dissatisfying experience is exacerbated by the loss of pleasure that comes with interpersonal collegiality in the studio. Conversely, these issues are absent with dance video-game technology, as again it has been honed for the medium and there are fewer glitches to interrupt the rhythmic flow of the game. Moreover, rhythm––and, by extension, pleasure––is built into Just Dance through its pop music selection and synchronized bright, flashy graphics (fig. 5). The pleasure of the experience––and potentially also movement education––is more assured through positive engagement. Conceivably the pleasurable experiences arising from online performance experimentation may lead to new artistic forms––such as Scott Silven’s, “The Journey” or perhaps new forms of live-stream, interactive comedy/cabaret––but which of these experiments will endure remains to be seen.
Considering live-streamed interactive training through a different lens, dissatisfaction may be further tied to a failure in establishing stage presence. The notion of presence is one that is extensively researched with virtual reality (VR) technology and shares comparable features with stage presence (see Samur). Many facets discussed with presence in VR arguably extend to video game and live-stream experience. Presence in VR, for instance, is linked to seamless engagement with a digital program, so that users forget the technology (as much as possible), becoming absorbed with the content, and this also arguably applies to Just Dance and online performance, with participants feeling a greater sense of performing in the moment when the technology runs smoothly. Moreover, early adopters of VR have remarked that experiences of presence correlate positively with emotional engagement, as evinced in psychological studies that encourage clients to face their phobias digitally (see Peperkorn and Mühlberger for an example). In these studies, an increase in presence (the more a person believes the VR experience) is linked to increased emotionally impact––feeling fear, for example, in seeing a VR spider. This link between presence and emotion is likely mirrored in video-game and live-stream experiences: the more participants are able to forget the technology, the more present they will feel and the more emotional engagement they will experience. However, as there are regular technical issues online and many interpersonal cues, such as eye contact or touch, are missing, participants’ awareness of the medium remains strong, creating a form of alienation and diminished sense of performer presence. This hindrance in establishing presence means it is difficult to truly practice stagecraft, which is defined by its liveness and immediacy. Again, in contrast, video games such as the Just Dance series avoid this rupture, as the games are tailored-built for a digital medium. Smoothness in the gameplay allows players to more fully engage with the choreographies, resulting in a greater affective experience, much as uninterrupted studio work contributes to a rewarding live training session.
Before the pandemic, it was well-known that adopting live-stream technologies to replace live performance was insufficient. Now, with so many experiments––both through live-streaming and working with alternatives such as Just Dance––we are in a better position to examine and articulate why. In focusing on four major breaks in the performance experience––in shared space, physical contact, rhythm, and establishing presence––I have presented an initial reflection on the forced shift of performance training into the digital landscape and the lost essentials of live performance, which have been highlighted through using a video game specifically tailored to in-home performance. There are, of course, many more areas to examine further. What nevertheless remains clear is that live-streamed training and rehearsal sessions can only serve as a temporary, makeshift measure to allow performance work to continue, and that current hybrid practices will proffer skills predominantly tailored to its hybrid medium. In spite of these new skills and the possibility for new mixed live-streamed formats to emerge, the technology’s regular shortcomings demonstrate that a return to live performance training is all but inevitable.
De Casmaker, Aron. Personal interview with the author. 20 Aug. 2020.
Humphrey, Doris. The Art of Making Dances. New York: Grove P, 1959. Print.
Linklater, Kristin. Freeing the Natural Voice. New York: Drama Books, 1976. Print.
Peperkorn, Henrik M., and Andreas Mühlberger. “The Impact of Different Perceptual Cues on Fear and Presence in Virtual Reality.” Annual Review of CyberTherapy and Telemedicine 11 (2013): 75–79. Print.
Samur, Sebastian Xavier. “Comparing Stage and Virtual Reality Presence.” Brazilian Journal on Presence Studies 6.2 (2016). Web.
Wiles, David. Theatre and Time. London: Red Globe Press, 2014. Print.