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Dwelling review: A compelling portrait of the unease of living in a digital age

Theatre: Leon Butler and Peter Power expand their art-making by integrating dance by Rosie Stebbing and Robyn Byrne with an immersive digital installation


Project Arts Centre, Dublin

Dwelling is the brainchild of Leon Butler and Peter Power, a pair of multidisciplinary artists whose work stands at the conjunction of art, design and technology – prior collaborations have featured interactive virtual-reality headsets and CCTV footage projected in real time. This new work at Project Arts Centre demonstrates their ambition to expand the techniques of their art-making, by attempting to integrate their brand of immersive digital installations with live dance performance. To help them achieve this goal they have turned to two emerging dancer-choreographers, Robyn Byrne and Rosie Stebbing.

Byrne, who graduated from Northern School of Contemporary Dance, in Leeds, was recently announced as one of the recipients of the Arts Council’s prestigious Next Generation Artists awards. In the last several years Byrne’s work has been divided between directing and performance, involving collaborations with organisations like Emma Martin’s United Fall group and Junk Ensemble, and she has shown remarkable versatility in her exploration of installation and cinematic art. Stebbing has enjoyed a similar momentum in the recent past: graduating in 2021 from ArtEZ University of the Arts, in the Netherlands, she has worked with the Step Up Dance Project, CoisCéim Dance Theatre and Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Theatre. Her piece Test 1, choreographed and performed with Ornella Dufay-Miralles, was the recipient of a judges’ choice award at the 2022 Dublin Fringe Festival.

The fruit of this collective effort is a captivating exercise in intermedial dance. Byrne and Stebbing choreographed the show and receive equal billing as its two performers, but, intriguingly, Stebbing is the only dancer onstage, in the sense that she is physically present. Byrne’s role is entirely virtual – her movements, captured digitally, appear as an abstract humanoid shape on the surface of a large LED screen that bisects the stage.

The show’s narrative explores familiar themes relating to the anxiety of living in the digital age. The cultural critic Mark Fisher succinctly characterised this experience as “depressive hedonia”, referring to the sense of personal fragmentation and joylessness that accompanies the addictive seeking of social media’s sensory input. At the outset, Stebbing’s protagonist appears in a small one-room residence. The lights dim, she lies in bed, and the screen renders multiple white points, like stars in the night sky. But the tranquillity is quickly overturned; her sleep is restless, and the points begin to clump together to form agitated shapes, recomposing into a simulation of her bedroom, where a nightmarish figure tears at the sleeper.


Stebbing performs her insomnia until the morning alarm, when we enter a new phase of panic working from home. Swamped by YouTube footage, media notifications and multiplying email correspondence, Stebbing is a highly compelling stage presence throughout: her roiling physicality is adept at inhabiting and discarding a series of intensely contortionist positions with inhuman efficiency – at times she seems part insect, part robot.

The show is not an overwhelmingly bleak experience, I should say. A sense of calm is established after Byrne’s major virtual solo, and Stebbing performs a quiet duet with herself via a motion-tracking AI that mirrors and amplifies her movements. The audience is left with the impression that some kind of recuperative effort is possible and that technology, while clearly a source of unease and exploitation, still has the potential to redeem itself in our lives.

Dwelling continues at Project Arts Centre, as part of Beta Festival, until Saturday, November 4th