Dance review: Virtual reality PheNoumenon 360 gives a glimpse into the future

T.H.E Dance Company's PheNoumenon production.
T.H.E Dance Company's PheNoumenon production.PHOTO: BERNIE NG

Review

DANCE

PHENOUMENON 360

T. H. E. Dance Company

Goodman Arts Centre, last Thursday (Dec 17)


The moment I walk into the studio at Goodman Arts Centre, I catch a whiff of a sharp, earthy scent. This is the smell of PheNoumenon 360, created for the company by Jetaime Perfumery.

I am handed a bundle of orange cloth, the same material that the dancers' costumes are made of. Inside the bundle is a virtual reality headset, a vial of the perfume, earphones and a controller that is triggered by the crook of a finger.

PheNoumenon, choreographed by T. H. E. artistic director Kuik Swee Boon, had its live premiere a year ago at the Esplanade Theatre Studio. Audiences could sit and stand almost anywhere they liked as orange-clad dancers pulsed, yelled and rushed around them.

It was intense, intimate and above all immersive, breaking new ground for Kuik's "hollow body" movement technique.

With live performances affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, T. H. E. has taken the unprecedented step of transforming PheNoumenon into Singapore's first full-length 360-degree virtual-reality dance production.

It was shot over four days from different audience viewpoints in collaboration with immersive technology provider Hiverlab.

The first option that the headset offers is "exploration": I can take my pick of five pre-recorded locations, sitting or standing, within the virtual theatre.

This is followed by a choice of watching an 11-minute excerpt or the full performance. The final choice is "scene selection", in which the various chapters of the dance can be experienced from two or more locations.

I choose to watch the full-length work. It is recommended that the viewer take a break every 20 minutes. I find, however, that if I support the headset with one hand, thus removing the discomfort of its weight pressing against my head, I am able to watch without the need for a break.

Compared to the original live version, PheNoumenon 360 foregrounds the episodic nature of the dance.

Rather than being disruptive, the breaks between scenes become opportune moments to rest my eyes by closing them or by taking a few slow blinks.

In the full-length version, Kuik's curatorial choices are apparent. I am seamlessly transported to a different vantage point for each chapter, but it soon becomes clear that these are indeed the best positions from which to experience the show.

There is no fear of making a bad choice, because any positions with a poor perspective would not have been loaded. Even if you regret your choice, you can always pause and choose again, or flit between every single vantage point offered.

The attention to detail in trying to recreate the original immersive experience goes beyond being able to watch dancers up close next to you or seeing other audience members no matter which way your head turns.

Even the sounds of breathing and the squeak of shoes are unique to your recorded vantage point and therefore change with each new perspective.

In many ways, this version stays true to the immersive quality and idea of choice offered by the live format and in fact I experience a much better view.

It is tempting to say this is the future of dance: there are many benefits to this format of presentation, such as being able to take it to people who are unable to leave their homes and reducing the cost of international touring. T. H. E. has future plans for islandwide pop-ups and even a home rental model for the headsets.

But unless you can accept the disconnect between your visual and auditory senses and the rest of your body, you might experience some physical discomfort.

Yet as technology improves, virtual experiences will only get better. This company has the drive and rigour to make the most of it.


BOOK IT/ PHENOUMENON 360

Where: Goodman Arts Centre, 90 Goodman Road, Block M, 01-51

When: Till Dec 31, limited slots from noon to 5.40pm for 15-minute excerpt and from 2 to 6pm for the full two-hour experience

Admission: $24 for full experience, $8 for excerpt at this website

Info: Suitable for those aged 13 and above