The brave new world of Ballet in virtual reality

Six dancers run in circles around you, chassIs it like thating an inch away from your face. Touch a tense display of jumps and lightning transitions. You are surrounded by movement, striving to catch the action. The dancers rush in pairs and the women now have their moment of bravery. All legs, legs and legs: swing at extreme angles around men and in perfect harmony with the trills of an invisible piano.

You are close enough to see sweat and tendon, but only as an invisible voyeur. This is not a night retreat to a children’s ballet class, but a Friday night with Oculus and Helen Pickett headphones. Petals.

Always innovative in ballet form, Boston Ballet has commissioned three choreographers to create works designed entirely for virtual reality. This last suite – Approach by Ken Ossola, a reworked version of the acclaimed Pickett Petals, i In my line, In my mind from My’Kal Stromile: will soon be available for viewing via Oculus headphones (or smartphone).

“We have to be a living theater, for today’s people,” says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. “To become that, we needed to take that risk.”

Boston Ballet is the first major company to have mixed VR and ballet to this point. And instead of bending classical choreography to suit the needs of a virtual environment, the latest ballets are designed for headphones, all original pieces with choreographic depth and new techniques.

“Zoom In” by Ken Ossola

Looking at Ossola Approach, an iridescence created through the intelligent lighting surrounding each dancer, making them appear differently. His phrasing subtly refers to other forms (Kathak spots, salsa, Martha Graham spirals). As you stand in the middle of a wavy semicircle of bodies, each moving snake-shaped ports of arms, find out how eye contact can change the tenor of a performance.

By its design, virtual reality dance is meant be this visceral. The audience is one step away from the action, occasional travel and slides, and the complexities of choreography and gesture. Pickett describes the experience as “having movement in the skin.”

The public, which now has a total agency, is no longer driven by the artistic decisions of the creative team. Boston choreographers realized that virtual reality breaks the established conventions of dance, because wherever the viewer looks, something different happens.

“All choreography has to be designed to move around the camera in a circular fashion,” says Ossola. “I discovered new ways to guide the public. You have to manage the space to constantly excite them ”.

In the case of Stromile, she treated virtual reality-enabled cameras as dancers themselves, approaching humans and machines as artistic equals. He designed a set of solos with a handheld camera. The camera is transmitted from one dancer to another, creating an intense viewing experience for the viewer. The cameras begin to adopt a language of their own movement and Stromile acknowledges that “without realizing it, the audience becomes part of the choreography.”

This intimacy also hints at an obvious obstacle: the virtual reality dance can be almost too close for convenience. VR realizes the fantasy of a ballet as a perfect construction. The dancers reveal themselves as fallible, the choreography as an artifice. Escapism and a sense of magic are difficult when hats are put on and effectively placed in the center of the stage.

Boston Ballet in the ‘Petal’ by Helen Pickett © Liza Voll

You don’t just have to adapt the audience. “Rehearsing the piece was difficult,” Ossola says. “The energy of the dancers is based on perceiving the tension of the audience. Obviously, there is no virtual reality.

“Every dancer has to dance everything as if it’s a solo,” Stromile says. “Because at any time someone can choose to look at you all the time.”

With choreographies that have to adapt to the unique pressures of a virtual reality audience, the question arises: will virtual reality dance become a subgenre in itself, a second cousin of the proscenium?

Pickett is effusive about the possibilities. For her, working in VR “took my breath away. This level of intimacy was exciting and what I have worked on throughout my career. ”

Sydney Skybetter, a professor of choreography at Brown University and one of the world’s leading thinkers on the intersection of dance and emerging technologies, is not surprised that the industry is finally performing RV. “The stage, as a concept, was actually a disruptive technology when it entered the ballet world, so we shouldn’t be surprised when contemporary technologies inevitably sidestep the biggest ones,” he says.

Scottish Ballet has constantly insisted on introducing ballet into the 21st century. In 2017 it became the first ballet company to present a digital season. Visionary art director Christopher Hampson believes the next big breakthrough in dance and technology will be the huge virtual reality with haptics, technologies that can create a tactile experience. “It simply came to our notice then. It will challenge creators to think differently, ”he says.

One of these creators is Alexander Whitley Company, which challenges the genre. Whitley’s team, formed by Royal Ballet, is working on an interpretation of Diaghilev’s The rite of Spring. Its next Rites of the future (which will premiere next year) will use artificial intelligence to allow the audience to dance alongside professionals.

“It will be a highly participatory experience,” Whitley says. A member of the audience will be able to control their own avatar and move alongside the dancers. Because “the main language of dance is emotion,” Whitley believes Rites of the future will talk to people at this basic level.

By its nature, dance takes advantage of emotions and empathy to bring us back to the body. But dancing on a virtual stage has the immersive power to get us out completely. While the Boston Ballet has paved new paths, the real test of the longevity of virtual reality will be where it goes from here. Only time will tell if other companies can continue to push the outer limits of ballet, an art form unknown for its acceptance of modernity or progress.

“I think if the younger generations can experience ballet that way, they’ll come to the theater,” Pickett says. “And that’s certainly the argument for other companies to join.”

Boston Ballet will soon release its latest work in VR bostonballet.org

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