Dante’s Purgatory: Students working with The Royal Danish Theatre

The students Atilim Sahin, Halfdan Jensen, Maja Fagerberg Ranten, and Rozina Sidhu has together with the ballet group Corpus at the Royal Danish Theatre explored how the boundaries between the audience and the dancers can be challenged and made more participatory. The group presented their work at Medea to fellow students, their supervisors, and representatives from the Royal Danish Theatre. This report summarizes the outcomes of their work.

This post summarizes one of the concepts developed during ten weeks of collaborative work between masters students and the cultural institutions in the project Musikalsk Oplevelsesdesign. See an overview of all four concepts here.

The purpose has been to explore how to merge the areas of Technological Intervention, Audience Experience, and Dance Expression. The two main questions have been:

  1. How can the artistic experience that the audience gets from watching a dance performance be amplified by involving today’s technology?
  2. How can the extra layer of developing and applying a technological solution add something extra to the expression of dance?

The process of answering these questions had an explorative approach including developing ideas in workshops with Corpus members, prototyping and testing.

The concept: Dante’s Purgatory
During the workshops, two general considerations were chosen to work further with:

Emerging versus progression relates to the flow of the way the audience experiences the performance; either as something that has a scripted progression – a  linear structure – or a space where the audience discovers parts of the performance in emergent bits.

Individual versus shared experience relates to the balance between experiencing the performance alone and experiencing it together with others.

In collaboration with Corpus, the students came up with a theme where it was possible to discuss different ways of using the space: should they use the entire building, having the audience moving around, or should they confine themselves to the stage? The idea of using Dante’s Divine Comedy came up and it was decided to focus on a performance directed towards a small number of audience members, around 50, because this would allow the possibility of an individual and more intimate experience.

Dante’s Purgatory

Dante’s Divine Comedy describes Dante’s travel from hell; from the Inferno, through the Purgatory which is the place where you get purified from the seven deadly sins, to Paradise. The group’s idea is to replace Dante with the audience and make them go through the situations of the main character, with the intent of changing the mindset of the audience. The structure of the performance is the three levels from Dante’s universe and having the audience move physically from floor to floor in the building. The first level, the Inferno, would have a progressive storyline and a shared audience experience. The second level, the Purgatory, would be a more individual and emergent experience around the seven deadly sins. The third level, the Paradise, would be the light and bright ending of the journey. Thereby, the whole performance would involve both progressive and emergent elements, and the overall progressive element being that the audience goes through the journey, and the emergent explorative element would primarily take place on the second level.

The group has decided to focus on the second level, the Purgatory, to be able to look into details of how the interaction between the dancers and the audience could be like. The purgatory level would be scary, dark, and outrageous; the dancers would perform characters representing the seven sins. In this open space, the audience gets close to the dancers and reveal the story by walking fluently around the dancers, experiencing the different characters.

The prototype: hearing the dancer’s inner voice
In correspondence to the Purgatory theme, focusing on confession, the group decided that the audience member should hear the dancers through headphones when standing close to a dancer; they hear the inner voice of the character. The audience member hears an individual sound and thus gets the impression of being addressed individually.

Hearing the dancer’s inner voice through headphones

One of the students said:

– We think this leaves space for the dancers to have different levels of communication with the audience. For instance, establishing eye contact gives the impression of the voice coming from inside the dancer’s head.

Mock-up dancer trying to establish eye contact

The group has been mixing media methods by balancing the use of a linear story with a more emergent story, and, as one of the students said:

– We make the audience experience a spectrum from pure spectating to audience-as-artist. We activate the audience and give them authorship of the performance. The performance becomes a co-creation between the dancers and the audience.

The next step is to hand the concept over to the theatre. The theme and structure of the performance will need to be elaborated and all elements will need to be tried out small-scale.

Comments from the supervisors and the Royal Danish Theatre
Erling: What you prototyped was trying to show what is normally hidden, e.g., dancers often “hide their heartbeat” or try to hide how much they are strained physically by the performance because you are supposed to be graceful. You tried augmenting the heartbeat, but instead of the body, you went to the mental state of the dancer. You could however work with both the mental and corporeal levels.

Jonas: I have a very technical question. I didn’t see the dancer wearing a headset. If this is going to work, then obviously the dancer must be able to hear the same thing the audience member is hearing. Otherwise, there will be no synchrony between what the audience member hears and the movements the dancer makes. The dancer needs to be able to “act the script”, in a way.

Halfdan: we have been discussing it but it’s not necessarily that the dancer hears what is being said, but other ways of knowing it. The dancer could, for instance, decide what the audience member hears. The space is not structured in a linear way so the dancer has a lot of responsibility to make it interesting.

Uffe: I have talked to the Corpus members and they are really excited about it because they have had a playground. They have been thinking about and experimenting with “what is it that I express?” as much as you have done. What we as a theatre want to achieve is to have something to present that is better than if we just wrote it on a piece of paper. You’ve done experiments and research, when we now go to find funding for this concept, we can present the work you’ve done.