Saturday, December 15, 2007

Crowd Control

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]

It has been exactly one week since we performed in Hong Kong, and everywhere we look, photos and video clips of our work are popping up, all over YouTube, FaceBook, and the many photo websites. It's not surprising, really, how quickly and how many of these are surfacing, considering that so many audience members at the festival viewed the performances through video, camera, or cell phone lenses. For all the similarities we discovered between Hong Kong and New York, one difference was evident, the patterns of group movement and the way in which audiences experience public performances.

The first half of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"
taken by Lewis Ho and posted on YouTube.

Original Music by Kris Bauman

Zach noted within our first week in Hong Kong that he felt that the crowds there shifted like puzzle pieces, all trying to move ahead by moving side to side and forward, especially in the MTR. In the New York subway system, crowds tend to push straight ahead in a linear fashion, even when weaving. The differences felt subtle in the first week when we were navigating our way around Hong Kong, but they became overt for us once we moved into performing dance in a public space.

For the beginning of the piece, we had originally toyed with the idea of soliciting a few friends in Hong Kong to follow our entrance onto Tong Chong Street, snapping photographs of us as if we were arriving superstars. We abandoned that idea a long time back, but we were surprised to find that not only did the cameras go off constantly during the entirety of our performances, they did so right in our faces. Crowds in Hong Kong have no qualms about pushing to the front and getting as close to the subject as possible. In fact, many a camera lens was almost shattered by a foot in the face. We did our best not to injure anyone (successfully), but we also had to fight for space to dance, frequently directing people out of the way with additional movement or, in some cases, actually physically moving people.

In the United States, audiences tend to give a wider berth to outdoor and site-specific performances and would most likely become aggressive if touched. In Hong Kong, touching people in order to move them out of harms way was necessary; no one thought it out of the ordinary. An intuitive traffic flow was built into the performance, and those who were not viewing it through a camera lens understood it and followed. You'll notice if you watch any of the many video clips online, that most people with cameras would huddle around if any of us stood still, so there is a lot of still footage out there while beautiful dancing was happening off camera. Rather than follow the movement progressions, many of the audiences in Hong Kong would gather around still moments, and the cameras would flash.

The second half of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street"
taken by Lewis Ho and posted on YouTube.

We also discovered that if we clustered, even after a big phrase of movement that traversed the space, audiences would close in, tighter and tighter. If we wanted to break into big movement again, we basically had to run at them and force them back, carving a out path for us to dance through. After a performance or two, we figured out some of the most effective methods for doing this, and the challenge became enjoyable as we discovered ways in which to subvert the cluster effect. Originally, for the ending, we shattered individually throughout the space to regroup along the street. Audiences were caught in the middle and refused to billow back. Therefore, we decided to run a narrow straight line, up and down the street to part audiences on either side so that we could play along the length of the street.

In many cases, audiences would just fill in the gaps between bodies, so our trio frequently became a group number with audiences strewn in between. In a lot of ways, we learned a great deal more about working in public spaces because of this. We had talked about taking cultural differences into consideration, but these were the types of discoveries one can only make in performance. Fortunately, we had six opportunities to work it out. I agree more strongly than ever with Zach that outdoor work needs strong images, bold costumes and tons of framework and unity. If we had not built these into the piece, there would have been a lot of muddy movement thrown onto the space. As it was, there was enough strength in the elements of image and unity and enough flexibility in the transitions to accommodate for the frequently invasive public. And I say "invasive" coyly and as a term of affection here because as site-specific artists (not to mention westerners), we are often considered the invasive element. And, since it is really about placing art in the public sphere, when the public occupies its space with such authority, the art really does become truly integrated if the public accepts it (or captures it, as the case may be with all the cameras). The denizens of the site are as integral as the architecture, and together with the social/cultural considerations, and historical markings, they make up the topography that our work attaches itself to.

For a series of various festival clips, including more of "Strangers on Tong Chong Street," visit

Or try a search on YouTube for "Urban Dance Festival Hong Kong" and see what you come up with. :)

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