Transforming the Dance Experience Through Film, VR Tech

Some say dance and film -- and especially technology -- make for strange bedfellows. Not so.

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The Royal Swedish Ballet performs "Half Life," a VR short directed by Robert Connor and choreographed by Sharon Eyal. Photo: submarinechannel.com.

I’ve always believed that dance is an art form best experienced live. Watching a show any other way feels too constrained: it lacks the spontaneity and precariousness that make the performing arts so thrilling. But, given my excitement for a couple of upcoming dance and musical theater films, as well as a sensational recent experience with virtual reality that I had, I think I may be changing my mind.

In recent years, there’s been an upsurge in dance and theater films as Hollywood adapts narratives from the stage to the big screen. This wave includes last year’s film version of The Nutcracker and the soon-to-be-released Kenneth MacMillan Romeo and Juliet, as well as time-tested musicals-turned-movies like Rent, Chicago and the upcoming (and already critically derided) Cats film.

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What makes these films refreshing is the caliber of dancers featured alongside A-list actors, such as Misty Copeland performing the pas de deux in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms while Morgan Freeman plays Drosselmeyer and Keira Knightly a villainous sugarplum fairy. Royal Ballet principal Francesca Hayward stars as Victoria in the Cats film and she performs in the new Romeo and Juliet adaptation. This is a welcome move away from producers’ willingness to cast actors who dance or sing a little, or worse, not at all. (Many dancers will remember the 2014 Free People ad campaign featuring a model unsuccessfully attempting to execute a number of steps en pointe!)

This brings me to another trend: films in which dance is a central element of the plot. Think Black Swan, Red Sparrow, and the very, very dark Italian horror film Suspiria. They, too, feature A-list actors, with Black Swan starring Natalie Portman, and Red Sparrow starring Jennifer Lawrence. There’s dancing; lots of it, actually. Both use American Ballet Theater principal ballerinas Sarah Lane and Isabella Boylston, respectively, for all the technical dancing. But then, there are a few caveats: these films stereotype the dance world and the dancers who inhabit it to varying degrees; the ballerinas should have received more credit for their impeccable work. I still question why actual dancer aren’t cast in leads role, but I’d still call all of this a win — or at least a step in the right direction. Another category of work that needs no qualification and which truly unveils the dance world with the utmost respect are biographical films like Wendy Whelan: Restless Creature, Mao’s Last Dancer and Pina, which offers the general public a glimpse into the life and career of today’s top dancers and choreographers — in 3D.

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All these trends excite me. Little by little, actual dancers are being cast to play, well, dancers. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next and removing some of the qualifications I mentioned above. But even with constant improvements to the genre, I still view dance on film as a wholly separate experience from attending a live performance. And as I noted earlier, this too is changing.

Pina, which features footage of, work by and interviews with the late choreographer Pina Bausch, premiered in 2011 and led the way toward showcasing dance in 3D — yes, with audiences still wearing those awkward 3D glasses. The technology definitely added texture and life to the experience of seeing the film, refining the experience in ways that traditional two-dimensional filmmaking just can’t do. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d rather see one of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch‘s performances if ever I could.

Compare that, though, to another recent experience that didn’t leave me wishing I was in a theater: director Robert Connor and choreographer Sharon Eyal’s Half Life, performed by the Royal Swedish Ballet. Dancers moved, often in unison, with understated crisp movements that echoed the steady techno beat. (Eyal is especially known for this style.) What distinguished this experience was that it wasn’t performed on a typical proscenium stage before a silent audience in the dark. The dancers were on a stage, sure, but only before 360-degree virtual reality (VR) cameras filming from 60 different angles. I donned an ocular headset and experienced the piece in a wholly unexpected way.

During Half Life, I viewed the ensemble from afar — the typical “audience” perspective, I suppose — yet somehow close enough to see dancers’ sweat and bruises, as well as from above and from the wings. And those were just a few of the available viewing angles. I was able to stand in the center of the dancers’ clump and really get close — an intimacy usually reserved for a dance partner. I looked from side to side into the darkness of the wings and out into the audience as well. And as I observed and really sensed my fellow dancers (in my mind, I was casting myself in the piece!), I felt the adrenaline begin to flow, just as it did during my performing years. I leaned into this feeling. It seemed something special, something real, something alive.

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While I wonder if I’m overdramatizing my experience, or tapping into unresolved yearnings or unfinished business from my dance career, I do think this is onto something. An immersive dance experience that can uniquely touch each audience member, affording them agency usually reserved only for a director, a filmmaker, a choreographer or a dancer. Sure, the director chooses specific shots, but, from moment to moment, I was free to determine where to look, wherever I was most interested in exploring. Sometimes it was the sheer physicality of the work — watching musculature move or the subtle differences in each dancer’s approach to unison movements. At other times, a fleeting look on a dancer’s face captured my attention. I was an audience member, but responsible for my experience.

The ballet world is just now grappling with these possibilities. Again, I think agency is key. Site-specific works are interesting — a welcome change from being a spectator in a dark theater — but fully immersive digital experiences are intriguing in a different way. As the world moves faster, as attention spans get shorter, as arts funding for big shows on big stages (or small ones on small stages) remains a barrier, let’s get away from presenting a work for presentation’s sake and focus more on how we can really connect people. Just as governments are looking at unique partnerships with the private sector to solve challenging public policy issues, so too should the dance world. Some say dance and tech make for strange bedfellows. Not so. I learned recently that it can actually create a more intimate performance experience. Let’s embrace that — and see what happens.