Björn Lengers
bangaloREsident@Natya & STEM

Björn Lengers © Björn Lengers Björn Lengers is a German theatre maker, programmer and digital artist. Together with Marcel Karnapke, he is part of the collective CyberRäuber since 2016. Their works, which are shown at numerous municipal and state theatres in German-speaking countries or at renowned festivals, combine digital media and performing arts, with the help of virtual reality or so-called artificial intelligence for example.

In Bangalore, Björn will work with Natya & STEM Dance Kampni on the digital exploration and visualisation of traditional Indian dance formats.

Final report

The starting point for my participation in the residency programme was the guest performance of my collective CyberRäuber in Bangalore in January 2022. As part of the Attakkalari Biennial 2021/22, we were able to show CyberBallet, an interactive artwork from 2020 that combines dance and virtual reality. On the sidelines of this visit, many contacts were made, including that with Madhu Natraj, the artistic director of Natya STEM Dance Kampni, and Kamya Ramachandran, the artistic director of BeFantastic, an organisation that looks after the mediation and dissemination of digital arts in South Asia and is linked to the digital company Jaaga.

The Natya STEM Dance Kampni is based in the Malleswaram district north of central Bangalore, and has been one of India's definitive dance companies in combining classical Indian elements with contemporary dance for over 25 years. Under the artistic direction of Madhu Natraj, the company is a regular guest at renowned dance festivals in South Asia and worldwide.

Marcel Karnapke and I have been working together since 2016 as CyberRäuber, a digital performing arts collective, and are intensively involved with the connection and artistic exploration of performing arts and digitality; we bring virtual reality or artificial intelligence to the stage or drama, opera, dance into digital realities. In recent years, we have been increasingly involved with dance and ballet, and in this respect, the idea of a joint exploration of traditional Indian dance, especially Kathak, in the context of our specific work quickly emerged with Madhu and Kamya. It was important that we could proceed freely throughout the residency, so I didn't have to come to India with a concrete project plan, but the dancers, the choreographer and I could uninhibitedly present our art to each other, improvise and try it out.

After the obligatory introductory week for the residents, we started on October 22 with an experimental day in the studio in Malleswaram, where I was able to give an insight into the ongoing work of CyberRäuber in the fields of Virtual / Mixed Reality and Neural Theatre, as well as giving the participants the opportunity to try out VR experiences, to create content in VR themselves and to interact with it with dance. With this very successful and inspiring beginning, the approach for the following weeks also became clearer: on the one hand, I would participate in as many of the daily practices and rehearsals as possible as an observer and try to get an impression of the work and dance forms, and on the other hand, I would work in regular sessions with individual ensemble members on video and in VR. In the following weeks, we concentrated more and more on the dance engagement with 3D sculptures and environments created in VR in real time, as well as on a possible scenic realisation for an audience that does not attend the stage events in VR. So here the question that was and is to be clarified in particular, was how the immersive scenery created and perceived by the dancers themselves in VR can be experienced by the audience via video live-streaming and the reaction of the performers.

This research and rehearsal activity was also significantly influenced by the completion of a work Marcel and I developed over the summer of 2022 called “Things Fall Apart”. This is a musical installation in Mixed Reality, visitors use VR headsets to move together through a physical space, as well as a virtual space created by neural networks for image, video, text and voice creation. The premiere of this piece in Berlin took place on November 4, right during my residency. However, one of the strengths of our digital formats has always been that they are often feasible regardless of location and are therefore usually very suitable for guest performances. In this case, I had contacted the Bangalore Creative Circus shortly after my arrival in Bangalore. This is an artspace with a special concept: with the overarching goal of raising awareness and educating about climate change, but also of creating a creative space for the city and specifically for the neighbourhood, as well as for freelance artists, a greenhouse, fablab, workshop, coworking spaces, multifunctional central hall and an excellent café, which has won international awards for its interior design, have been created in an old factory hall. This initiative, founded only a year ago,  became not only one of my favourite places in the city, but I was also able to convince the artistic director Manisha Vinod to show our work "Things Fall Apart" there, less than three weeks after the Berlin premiere, on November 24. A complete success, but above all a special experience for me personally and again an occasion for interesting conversations and networking on the sidelines. In addition, the spatial design of the Bangalore Creative Circus, as well as the special reaction of the visitors from Bangalore to our work, which is very much influenced by a Western European art canon, has shown us new artistic paths for the long term, which will lead to significant changes in further performances.

The experience gained in this project and in the reaction to it could be incorporated very well into the work with the dancers of the STEM Dance Ensemble, especially because the element of Mixed Reality, when projected onto the stage through real-time video, provides good orientation even for passive spectators. In this respect, scenically interesting situations arise that are still largely unexplored - exciting!

Bangalore is India's centre for information technology and thus also one of the world's hotspots for the latest IT developments. Through the work with Jaaga / BeFantastic and the reflections on the upcoming FutureFantastic festival, there were already first points of contact with this high-tech world, but for the residency, an additional special opportunity arose through contact with the ABAI Centre of Excellence. This organisation, partly funded by the state of Karnataka, runs a finishing school for 3D modellers, animators and other media designers, as well as several laboratories and studios, including a motion capture studio. Run by excellent world-class professionals, motion capture is produced here for the film or video game industry, including for international clients.

We were invited to spend half a day shooting there. In four preparation days, Madhu and I worked together on some short choreographies that would both give a small insight into the spectrum of the company and would probably work well in VR or MR. On site, these sequences were then recorded in several takes and visualised directly with standard video game characters. In further processes, these recordings are now to be processed by so-called tracking and cleaning until the movement data can then be used. We are currently (January 2023) thinking about producing a smaller mixed reality installation with this data, which could be shown by STEM as part of Indian dance or digital arts festivals.

Another earlier contact took me to Chennai, north-east of Bangalore, in early December. There I met the dancer, choreographer and scholar Swarnamalya Ganesh, who is particularly interested in Indian temple dances, and with whom I had an intensive exchange about expanded digital possibilities during the year. In Chennai we were finally able to meet in person, and she had the opportunity both to get to know existing work better and to try out certain ideas and concepts discussed in advance. We agreed on further exchanges and would like to work together if possible. My visit to Chennai ended with a performance by STEM at the Amrit Yuva Kalotsav Festival, atmospherically framed by the tropical cyclone Mandous, whose strong winds and rainfall, and the resulting cancelled return flight, gave us an impromptu return journey by minibus through the night to Bangalore...

The final event of my residency and presentation of the project outcomes took place on December 5 in the studio in Malleswaram. Conceived as a lecture performance, the dancers Adrika Subhash and Deeksha Kumar presented aspects of our work during the residency together with me, in smaller scenic units. A very important part of the evening was the exchange with the audience, we were able to answer numerous questions, have conversations, as well as offer the space for concrete trying out and experiencing VR/MR. From my point of view, a complete success.

Although the official part of the residency ended with a trip to Kochi in the state of Kerala and a visit to the art biennial there, I was able to work on another potential project that is important to us shortly before Christmas in Bangalore. For the FutureFantastic festival in March 2023, we have been asked to conceive a neural theatre work for the urban space of Bangalore. Based on our stage plays with artificial intelligence (Prometheus Unbound, Der Mensch ist ein Anderer, Mensch am Draht) and James Joyce's Ulysses, local performers will speak and play the stream of consciousness of a neural network over 24 hours. On December 21, I was able to recruit numerous interested, potential performers for this at a workshop in the Jaaga premises in the centre of the city.

The bangaloResidency was thus an extremely good experience for me personally. Artistically/professionally, I was not only able to achieve the goals I had set myself in advance, but also to make many other interesting discoveries and contacts that will hopefully help me and us not only in our work in Europe, but also in future projects in India. Working and being with my hosts, especially Madhu Natraj of course, was immensely friendly, amicable and pleasant. I always felt very welcome and they have given me an insight into the immensely rich and magnificent Indian culture for which I am deeply grateful.

The same goes for the team at the Goethe-Institut. I would particularly like to mention the contact with Nandita Nirgudkar, who always had an open ear for me and my questions and problems. This very good support also made the stay so particularly pleasant. And last but not least, I am still enthusiastic about the people, nature and culture of the places I was able to get to know during these two and a half months. This stay in South India was very special for me. If I had to emphasise one thing, it would be the immense friendliness and curiosity that was always shown to me. Thank you!