The UK development organisation and membership
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Animated Edition - Autumn 2006
Shrink'd
Yael Flexer, Artistic Directorof Bedlam Dance Company, on the making and touring of Shrink'd, aninteractive installation & live performance event
Shrink'd grew out of a short research project commissioned by Up Close, East London Dance and BBC/Blast alongside a Bedlam/ELD summer school for young people. From this modest beginning Shrink'd has developed into a full-scale touring project encompassing interactive installation, live performance and extensive education and community work across the UK. It has been commissioned and supported by Woking Dance Festival, Take Art: Dance, The Engine Room, University of Chichester, Greenwich Dance Agency, Laban Centre, The Place - Choreodrome and Tanzherbst, Dresden together with funding from the Arts Council and has been touring in various guises since Jan 2005.

For the purpose of this article I thought it might be interesting to reflect and share our experience of these different 'guises'. To examine the notion of a flexible, multifaceted work that responds to different contexts conceptually and in 'real-time', through live performance. I also hope that this reflection can offer a way of thinking of partnership as joint curation, dance companies and promoters supporting each other in taking-risks and challenging their audiences. This approach considers local needs and aspirations alongside the company's artistic journey and (in the case of Shrink'd at least) can extend modes of thinking and presenting dance work.

One of the trademarks of Bedlam's style is the combination of functional, fast paced & intricate choreography with a wry and informal sense of humour. Key to any Bedlam work is the way in which performers establish a rapport and an intimacy with an audience as 'real' person to 'real' person. The works tend to point to the reality of the performance event as it unfolds. This produces a certain honesty and shared humour that reminds both audience members and performers of the 'liveness' of the event. What is at stake is a live exchange in which both parties are vulnerable, dependent and to a degree responsible to one another other, both are active in per/forming and containing the event.

In Shrink'd I wanted to take this approach further, honing in on the intimacy between performers and audience members as well as finding ways to engage audience members physically through interactive installation and/or performance. With this in mind I decided to create Shrink'd 'in the square', that is as an in the round performance environment with the audience seated on four sides of a lit square. The primary intention was to establish proximity between audience members and performers that engendered an embodied viewing, a physical and visceral response through direct eye contact, touch, smell (and sweat). The square format and the bareness of the performance space implicated the audience within the performance arena denying the comfort of the blacked out and anonymous seating bank as audience members viewed each other across the space. The choreography constantly played with this 360-degree format, revealing or concealing movement from certain sections of the audience, dedicating dances or whispering 'inside' information to individuals, generally teasing and acknowledging the fact that the audience is in full view.

Depending on the design of each venue, a series of interactive installations were placed around the square. As audience members entered the theatre or venue they encountered a social space, a playful environment. Working with digital artist Nic Sandiland we paid particular attention to creating tactile, physically responsive installations that emulate an organic sense of movement and dialogue as in an improvised duet.

The installations move between private and public, from large to minute projections. Visitors move their hand across the Shrink'd Table affecting, as if stroking miniature dancers in a game of virtual puppetry. In Breathing Space, visitors enter an enclosed space to engage in a movement dialogue with a projected dancer. The dancer gazes at the visitor and responds to his/her movement; when the visitor stops moving, the dancer appears static but still slightly animated, hovering and waiting, moving toward and away from the viewer in a way which resonates with the intimate exchange that takes place between performers and audience members in the live show. Other installations include customized VJ decks on which visitors can 'scratch' snippets of the show, and structures showing minute projections from different perspectives, directing the viewer to consider their physical relation to what is being viewed. Developed at the same time and from the same root as the live show the installations served as a further artistic layer and interpretation. They echoed the vocabulary and square form of the show and were important in suggesting a way of conceiving performance as a place for social exchange rather than simply spectacle.

Commissioning the Shrinkd show and the Breathing Space installation, Eckhard Thiemann, the director of Woking Dance Festival was clear in his mission to develop specially curated events. We jointly developed Shrink'd as the main aspect of a Festival open day which also offered a site-specific performance, screenings of South East dance video works and taster workshops. Leading up to the open day Bedlam ran a six-week residency working with local schools, colleges and Surrey University students creating a community and graduate performance platform to be presented alongside the performances of Shrink'd scheduled throughout the day. The night before and on the morning of the event, I remember Helen, Denise, Eckhard and myself crossing our fingers hoping that people will turn up. Woking Festival had not run such an event before so we had no way of predicting audience numbers. Luckily our careful planning and hard work paid off, we had over 500 visitors, moving in and around the building, from workshop to installation to performance. The reactions were extremely positive, with people staying and engaging with the works (and each other) for a substantial amount of time. Despite my initial hesitations with regard to the context and how the work might be received, I felt that the audience, including children, moved towards us. Something about the format and content of the event as well as the personified performance of the dancers allowed the work to be read on many levels simultaneously.

Take Art and The Engine Room commissioned the Shrink'd Shop, a two-week independent exhibition of Shrink'd installations built into the infrastructure of a Bridgewater high-street shop. As with Woking, this unusual format for presenting dance work managed to attract a large number of visitors, beyond our initial predictions. It also enabled us to create a link between the installations and our performances throughout the region. Artistically this was a new and extremely satisfying venture for us. Unlike 'flyby' performances we could witness the momentum and interest growing in the town, with people dropping by everyday to see what we were up to. I was particularly pleased with our shop window which involved an on screen miniature dancer who moved closer, peering inquisitively at passers by as they moved close to her. Alongside, the company ran dance workshops and a dance for camera residency for digital and dance artists. The completed films have been shown alongside Shrink'd performances and as parts of various other platforms since.

Following these initial partnerships Shrink'd continued to tour as a modulated event with the emphasis changing in response to presentation contexts. Some presentations focused solely on the live show and installations highlighting and attracting audiences through the uniqueness of the event as an intimate in the round performance combined with interactive environments (The Place, Wycombe Swan, Dresden Festival). Most venues showed interest in the community involvement and performance alongside the professional work. These took on the more traditional format of 'curtain raisers' e.g. in Lancaster we worked together with The Nuffield Theatre and Ludus Dance Agency creating curtain raisers with a local school, a mixed ability group and Ludus Youth Dance Company over an intensive 6 day residency. Other presentations focused only on the technological, interactive aspect (IMZ & Live Screen at Lillian Baylis). Certain organisations were interested in the dissemination of our research to practitioners and worked with us on developing courses or presentations for local dance and digital artists (Take Art, Swindon Dance, University of Chichester).

As we continued our research and tour of Shrink'd and in response to events taking place in London, Israel and beyond the live work moved between being 'chatty', 'intimate' and 'ridiculous' to hinting at images of violence and death. It directly and indirectly referenced political events highlighting issues of intimacy and safety, difference and affiliation. Although Shrink'd is a set choreographic work, I left the dialogic aspect open, requiring a high degree of awareness, sensitivity and improvisatory decision making from the dancers. The improvisation emerges spontaneously in the interaction with an audience and allows the mood of the piece to alter considerably, from ridiculous to somber. Through the variety of performance contexts we became better at this set/improvised form that the live worked offered. We could judge more quickly and instinctively how far we could challenge each other and those around us. Even though for some members of our audience this was the first encounter with 'pure' contemporary dance or conversely another night in a lifetime spent in theatres, we felt that the impact of being so close and the consciousness we brought to our exchange meant something personal was at stake.

As joint curators our commissioning partners not only took a leap of faith but also worked with us in developing and facilitating new contexts or possibilities for presentation. These contexts allowed us to think broadly and creatively, finding new ways of conceiving community engagement and participation as well as challenging us to go further artistically.

The Shrink'd tour concluded in May 2006. The Shrink'd installations are scheduled for presentation at Sadler's Wells in Winter 2006. Bedlam is currently developing a new project for Autumn 2007 Spring 2008 Doing, Done & Undone. Inspired by Shrink'd, the new production is looking at a larger event structure combining both installation and participation.

Yael Flexer and Bedlam can be contacted at info@bedlamdance.com

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Animated: Autumn 2006