Mercurial Dance have a track record of creating dance theatre and innovating in digital. Our work is immersive, site-specific and interactive, and we seek to have a direct connection with our audiences. We create relevant, inclusive work that develops local cultural communities through ambitious performance, education programs & participatory projects.
Over the last two years, Mercurial has made a strategic decision to focus on using digital innovation to realise these ambitions. We have proactively been collaborating with partners from the commercial digital sector to explore how we can create new, exciting dance-led experiences by combining our dance knowledge and skills with their digital creativity. The *Arts Connect Thrive Bursary offered us a key early step on this journey. The impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the Arts Sector and our company has challenged us to explore our development as a company and the direction we take. Some of our change was rapid and reactive: within a week of lockdown we had moved our entire education programme online, created over 50 instructional videos, posting resources across multiple platforms with a programme children can self-learn at home which needed limited parental intervention. We started to explore blended learning models.
As an organisation we are confident in the use and application of digital technology, we have created apps, websites and videos. However, we noted a turning point in audiences’ desires. There has been a growth in immersive and experience-based events, as exemplified by Secret Cinema, immersive dining, Punch Drunk’s theatrical shows and Escape Rooms, and can link to Air BnB experiences for destination tourism. We see that audiences have a desire to be active and blend social experiences within their connection to culture. This background was key for us as we considered our Arts Connect Thrive bursary application, centered around the question “How can we use digital gamification tools to make immersive dance theatre that can reach and engage young people aged 13+?”
John Sear presenting at the Arts Connect Digital conference in February 2020, introduced me to Escape Games, and his approaches to games design. I was inspired, and together with the opportunity the changes the pandemic brought, our Arts Connect Thrive bursary enabled an early collaboration to form, to explore our question. The great thing about being successful at this point, is that it brought a much needed endorsement, confidence and investment into our ideas at a critical point. It supported our ambitious, and we built on this, financially, creatively and collaboratively. Fast forward to today and these early steps have now been realised. We created Fame Game™, an outdoor adventure game played on mobile phones. Armed with a map and a phone, you navigate the city centre, finding clues and solving puzzles as you piece together the story behind the scenes of a dance talent show. It’s a sophisticated narrative told through a series of video posts, and your experience is augmented by ‘Annie’ the production assistant through a live SMS exchange. The texts help you to get some inside info and evolves the narrative. We shot the equivalent of a short film over three weeks in the summer of 2021, with a diverse cast and dance styles; collaborating with a writer, filmmaker and the cast to achieve this.
Behind the scenes there has been a profound shift in my artistic development and the way I create work too. We incorporated AGILE development approaches: testing and connecting with our target groups, as we created the experience, evolving the work from feedback. We recognised there’s a big difference in the way 13-16 year olds access art to an older independent 20-25 year old and needed to understand better their views. As part of the testing we worked with a group from the Hippodrome Young Advocates programme, and a second test group for 20-25 year olds. They played an early storyboarded version and we discussed how we could take the game forward.
“I really liked being outside and moving around the city, it had an intriguing plot and the puzzles are fun and challenging”
In October 2021 we previewed the experience to test audiences and further conversations were had with a variety of audiences, with family groups, couples and friends playing. This summer in 2022 we launched it in Birmingham. Fame Game™ is a lot of fun, promoting a social experience between a group. Being digital it’s easy to use in a dedicated event for organisations that want a fun way to help re-establish the social team dynamic, bringing their people back together after so long working remotely.
Our wider ambitions around digital work for young people have also developed from the Thrive starting question. Over the summer last year, we co-created a prototype choreography game for children aged 8-13, commissioned by Coventry City of Culture 2021 which seeks to support health and wellbeing through digital dance. We recognise it takes time (and money!) to create high quality digital experiences. One of the joys of developing our co-authored process with young people into digital dance, is that all the way through the creative process there are benefits: connections, inspirations, learning, joy and a responsiveness to the children and young people we work with, that bring a rich process at each stage.
Oliver Scott- Artistic Director
*Arts Connect Thrive Bursary
This R&D bursary was developed to enable cultural and creative organisations in the West Midlands to explore new ways of developing their artistic/ creative practice or approaches in relation to their work with children and young people, either through developing audiences, engagement or participation. We were particularly interested in ideas which linked into a digital field and / or connecting with young people to help shape this new approach.