Fine dance but 3D visuals struggle: T.T.C. Dance in Déjà Vu

Shuiyuan Theater, Taipei
December 25, 2016

David Mead reviews Chang Ting-ting’s latest work and muses on 3D visuals in dance

Despite the sensation having been noted at least as long ago as 1330 by Japanese monk Yoshida Kenko (the term was coined much later in Émile Boirac’s 1876 letter to the journal Revue philosophique, and the concept explored again by him in his 1917 book, L’Avenir des Sciences Psychiques), déjà vu is one of those subjects it’s really tricky to get a handle on. It cannot be made to happen, occurring for no obvious reason, and has no outward physical signs. Usually, there are no secondary outward signs either, such there is with being afraid. All that makes it difficult to study scientifically, let alone reflect in choreography.

That didn’t put off Chang Ting-ting (張婷婷), though, who uses the phenomenon as a starting point for Déjà Vu (既視感), her latest work for her company, T.T.C. Dance (張婷婷獨立製作), and a collaboration with Kaohsiung-born composer and digital artist Lin Jin-yao (林經堯), who provided the music and 3D projections. Disappointingly, the work joins that growing list of dances that have so much right about them choreographically but in which the visuals are too often underwhelming and struggle to establish a relationship with the live action.

T.T.C. Dance in Déjà VuPhoto Chen Chang-chih
T.T.C. Dance in Déjà Vu
Photo Chen Chang-chih

Déjà Vu, the dance, opens with a number of still pictures of dancers in different parts of the stage that we only see for a moment. It’s simple but effective. I’m not sure if we are supposed to think we may have seen one or more before because each is different, but they certainly stay etched in the memory. Their repeated swinging their arms reminds one of huge bell-clappers or industrial machinery, an idea later returned to in a neat rounding up of the piece. Here, and in another section that sees a lot of crossing of the stage, individuals drop out of the group or line for a moment before being subsumed once more. While the mind makes connections with what we have already seen, it’s not déjà vu, which is when a situation feels overwhelmingly more familiar than it should for no apparent reason and that familiarity feels wrong. Here, the feeling is appropriate given what we have seen previously.

An especially captivating solo sees a female dancer agitated, her dance a mix of sharp angular movement and gesture that reflects nicely Lin’s harsh, industrial clanging score. She often holds her head in her hands and places a hand across her mouth as if silencing herself. As the thrashing music suddenly stops, she collapses to the ground. One presumes it’s an extrapolation of a response to déjà vu, albeit one not noted in studies.

I rather enjoyed a section where two couples referenced each other in side-by-side duets, although I’m less sure of a scene that sees that performers move as group, shuffling quickly, arms held loosely (think Hofesh Shechter). While dances in this middle part are largely interesting, a little pruning wouldn’t come amiss as you do start to feel you’ve seen things before. But while that maybe point, again, it’s not déjà vu because it’s entirely appropriate.

T.T.C. Dance in Déjà Vu Photo Chen Chang-chih
T.T.C. Dance in Déjà Vu
Photo Chen Chang-chih

The dancers are excellent throughout, their individuality emphasised by their gorgeous costumes, all variations on black, be it jacket and trousers, a long dress, shorts or mesh tops. Goh Boon Ann’s (吳文安)’s lighting defines space and gives depth to the stage very effectively.

There are times when Lin’s 3D projections contribute effectively, albeit in abstract sort of way. What appears to be a drifting, upside-down cityscape at night, all small lights (although in another moment I saw the bottom of a vast spaceship) is excellent, although the effect is spoiled by it switching rapidly with a set of starker geometric shapes, sort of a more obvious upturned cityscape, means that neither has the impact perhaps they should. I also rather liked a wafting sheet appears to float above the stage, although quite why was lost on me.

Interestingly, the visuals largely worked just as well in 2D, a fact I found out when I discovered that my 3D glasses blurred the real dancers on stage so much that I found myself repeatedly taking them on and off. It was the only way to see at least some of both clearly.

There is a lack of connection between the visuals, the dancers or the dance, however. Although Chang and Lin spent considerable time working together, it does feel as if the 3D has been simply layered on top of the dance rather than constructed with it.

T.T.C. Dance in Déjà VuPhoto Chen Chang-chih
T.T.C. Dance in Déjà Vu
Photo Chen Chang-chih

Even sitting centrally and only a few rows above the stage, a lot of the time the visuals appear above the dancers, forcing one to choose between watching one or the other (the photographs make them look much more one in front of the other than was my experience). When they do join the performers below, it’s mostly as uninteresting vertical sparking, crackling lines. Hopes are raised when digital human figures appear, but they remain resolutely behind the dancers at floor level. The 3D effect here is also rather weak. Not having any projections extend beyond the front of the stage was probably wise, though.

Far more successful (not surprising since they both came from Lin) is the relationship between the music and the projections, changes and pulses in one clearly being reflected in the other.

So, what is it about 3D and live dance? Why is it successful so rarely? A fundamental problem is that, in cinema, everyone sees the same thing. In live performance this is not so. The fact that the real dancers are in 3D anyway, and that the stage already has depth, means that what you see can depend a lot on where you sit. Add projections to that and the problems multiply. Sit in one place and visuals might appear totally integrated into the action or in a specific position in relation to a performer; sit in another and they might not. Is there also an issue that given live dance is already a 3D experience, adding a few 3D visuals not only doesn’t add that much anyway and, like any projections, can actually detract from the live action?

Another possible reason is that everyone in cinema comes from a projected visuals starting point, whereas in live dance those for the choreographer and visual artist are very different, neither fully understanding the other. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that 3D is more associated with film, but I find 3D tends to turn a live experience into a cinematic one, something very different.

And then there’s maybe the biggest problem of all, that live dance simply doesn’t have the megabucks to throw at the technology, which means the standard of 3D we get is a million miles from that we are used to in cinemas. It doesn’t help here that the claims made for 3D efforts in live performance are invariably way over the top.

The fact that 3D technology has been around a long time yet never taken off probably tells us something. One day I hope to see it work well, and be fully integrated into the choreography, but I’m not holding my breath. Still, you can’t criticise choreographers for trying; after all, experimentation is how art moves forward.