Staging Sustainability with William Yong in vox:lumen

By Brittany Duggan
  • vox:lumen by William Yong / Photo by David Hou
  • William Yong / Photo by David Hou
  • vox:lumen by William Yong / Photo by David Hou
  • vox:lumen by William Yong / Photo by David Hou

Choreographer William Yong premiered his new work vox:lumen at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre Theatre from March 4 to 7, 2015. The sustainability-themed work was produced with Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage in association with York University and Aesthetec Studio.

vox:lumen has been in research and development for over three years. Thanks to a multi-year creative partnership, the work is powered only by kinetic and renewable energy. It asks: what does a show that is powered by sustainability look like?

Five male dancers (Yong included) engage with and manipulate a space filled with boxes that emit light, many oversized light bulbs attached to short cords – a few strategically placed in the audience for one beautiful scene where the bulbs come alive and glow in a rhythmic symphony – and one giant set piece that resembles a nerve axon.

The technological and financial difficulties presented in a project like this are so immense that it is worth investigating how it all came together and how it will live on. 


William, first off, congratulations on this major feat. It’s now two weeks after the premiere, how are you feeling about vox:lumen?

Exhausted! It was a very ambitious project. I brought a group of artists, technologists and environmentalists together and charged them with all kinds of challenges in order to produce a self-powered, contained dance production. So that was a great achievement.

Many of my partners and sponsors had never worked with a dance artist before. After the show we talked about how much we’d achieved and how the project really changed their perspective about dance. Technology, like reality, is constantly evolving and changing. The ones who understand the changing reality are the ones who have the responsibility to inform the others and to enlighten the others. The arts, generally, find a way of communicating this change better than any businessman or any engineer, so, to me, we did our part with this dance production, by staging sustainability.

From an energy perspective, what did you achieve?

It’s a bit crazy. We only used five kilowatt-hours per show. A traditional dance run – five shows – might need 130 kilowatt-hours. We calculated that we only used 23.6 kilowatt-hours for four shows and one talkback. All the energy we used was provided by kinetic and renewable energy sources, which is extraordinary.

An example of kinetic energy in the show is?

The dancers powered a device onstage, as well as outside in the lobby there were bikes for pedalling to harness power for a generator.

And renewable energies for this show?

The green energies were, for example, the solar power – inverters and power cubes outside the theatre. We call it the energy fair. We had solar panels, inverters and batteries set outside the theatre to convert solar energy to the batteries during the day and then at night we’d move the batteries inside to use in the show.

The challenge was that every single power cube we used had a different kind of capacity. We had to allocate the cubes into different places in the theatre quite specifically – every one was responsible for something different. For instance, one cube was responsible for the house lighting.

There were quite a few people involved. Could you comment on the collaborators?

There were so many people that came into the project that were almost like godsends. When I first received funding, I felt like I was just so naïve, I just wanted to create a show that was self-powered, self-contained. I was naïve about how complex it was going to be, but I learned along the way. I met with so many like-minded people and there are so many people I have to thank because they really guided me to the right collaborators – too many to mention. I definitely have to mention Ian Garrett, from York University, and James McKerman – these two professors really believed in me when they first met me and they really helped me so much along the way. We had so many brainstorming sessions – and even with the sets, we went through twenty-six or twenty-seven versions – it all required lots of care for every single element. I depended on Ian so much and James built all the set elements. 

When I first received my funding from the Metcalfe Foundation, Mark Argo from Aesthetec Studio was the one who I first did my dance and technology research with. The research was all about how to harvest energy by movement and how to output the energy to use in other devices. The research that I did with him really stemmed what vox:lumen looks like now.

Randy [S’ad] was director of strategy and development and he encouraged me to talk to different organizations who are interested in sustainability. And, of course, Tina [Rasmussen], Lynanne [Sparrow] and Harbourfront Centre – they’re responsible for making this piece bigger. Originally I thought that vox:lumen would be very simple [laughs], but because they believed in this project and took it into World Stage it gave me more time to research the subject matter more deeply.

Through the process, at what point did the choreography take over? Or was the technology always leading?

Good question. Well, first of all, I received funding for the creative process and I’m very careful with my integration of technology and dance. There is an objective in the choreography right from the very beginning of the piece – it’s actually from my childhood. When I was young, because my family was so poor, we had to reuse, recycle, share and save. I remember vividly how much we had to play with natural lighting, with candles and flashlight, because we could not afford electricity. These experiences really informed the philosophy of vox:lumen. I was really embarrassed when I was young, but I’m so thankful for them now, they continue to inspire my work.

In terms of technology for vox:lumen, I really wanted the lowest power ceiling [the amount of energy you need for the show] to tell a most compelling dance show – we didn’t want to be extravagant, the energy is produced by kinetic and renewable energy so we had to use precise calculations and not go overboard. We used LED lights, but couldn’t use them for the whole show – that’s why you saw hand-cranked devices that also create light – to not consume all of the power from the power cubes. I didn’t want to create a flashy technological dance show – that was not the objective. I wanted the dance to speak for itself, the dance is so important for me. I developed the dance along the way; from the very beginning, it was never dictated by the technology. I wanted the technology and the dance harmonized. Three of the dancers – Brendan Wyatt, Michael Caldwell, Irvin Chow – have been in it since the very beginning three years ago. There were lots of changes to the choreography – when we introduced new sets and used all the devices, we needed to make adjustments.

There are a lot of moving pieces in vox:lumen, and it sounds like new technologies will continue to shape how the piece runs, I wondered how that affects the dance?

I don’t think it affects it much. Keep in mind, I always want the dance to be the central component of the piece. There are a few things we had to choreograph, like the pulling of the generator – we didn’t choreograph that until we got the device – but all of the other sections were set with the devices we would be using in mind.  What needed to be altered more was the adaptability of the technology with each other and in the theatre. For instance, we developed technology that uses ZigBee – wireless networking technology – so that we could remote control the lights turning on and off, but because of the complication of the theatre’s union rules we needed to find a way to merge that into our lighting DMX/board. That was one of our biggest challenges: merging different devices and technologies to work together. That was more challenging than the dance choreography.

The effort you went through to bring this work to light is tremendous. Is it achievable by another contemporary dance company?

Of course. Anybody could do this. When I was a speaker at the international Staging Sustainability conference, I met so many like-minded people from around the world. There are actually lots of people in the theatre world in other cities that have their minds in staging sustainability and also in creating zero carbon footprints in their productions.

It’s actually easier for a contemporary company to achieve this than a big ballet or opera because they require much more energy. With the improvement of technology more of this will happen – even in households, more people are using LED and this saves so much energy. 

How transportable is vox:lumen?

The concept of the work is that it’s self-powered and self-contained so, very transportable. It wouldn’t be sustainable if it wasn’t.

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork, what’s next for vox:lumen?

This is an experience that I hope will continue. I believe with technology there is a way we can continue with this idea, of being sustainable and thinking about the carbon footprints of our work. We already have some people who want to bring the piece into their festival or venue so I hope that we can continue this experience and find an even better way to power the show. Also, maybe use the technology to power my next show. I don’t think the spirits of vox:lumen will ever stop. I really believe in the project; it’s about the importance of light as a medium of communication and a manifestation of truth and openness and I strongly want this project to continue.


To learn more about this project and William Yong, visit williamyong.com

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