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CULTURAL COMEBACK

Boston Ballet’s Dance in VR Series breaks the wall between viewer and performer

Derek Dunn, María Álvarez, and John Lam in Helen Pickett's "Petal."
Derek Dunn, María Álvarez, and John Lam in Helen Pickett's "Petal."Liza Voll

For an audience member in a proscenium theater, watching ballet unfold onstage is a big picture experience. As you sit quietly in the dark, you can shift your vision side to side, up and down, but the perspective stays basically the same, and there’s a definite sense of remove between viewer and performer.

With its new virtual reality project, Dance in VR Series on Facebook, Boston Ballet explodes the 4th wall, offering viewers at home a way to step into the middle of all the action. Dancers seem to jeté over your shoulder, and you can almost feel the breeze from a flurry of pirouettes that unfurl as if just inches away. It’s an intimate, visceral, immersive, and interactive experience. And since the company won’t be performing live at the Opera House until “The Nutcracker,” it may be the next best thing to sitting in the audience this summer.

“You can experience performance at your house as if you’re sitting in the middle of the [performance space], seeing everything from within,” says Ernesto Galan, Boston Ballet’s videographer for the past 12 years. “It’s like being transported to another world.”

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For the new series, the company commissioned three works designed specifically for VR – Ken Ossola’s “Zoom In,” adapted from his work of the same name for the recent “Process & Progress” program, a newly tweaked version of Helen Pickett’s acclaimed “Petal,” and a new work by company dancer My’Kal Stromile, “On (my) line, In (my) mind,” filmed in December in a large industrial warehouse in New Bedford. The three pieces are choreographed to be viewed through a high-end Oculus headset, but even some gaming headsets can give you a glimpse into this new way of looking at dance. (If your only option is your tablet or smartphone, your best bet is to sit on a swivel chair in a darkened room. You change perspective by moving your device.)

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Paul Craig and María Álvarez in Ken Ossola's "Zoom In."
Paul Craig and María Álvarez in Ken Ossola's "Zoom In."photo by Brooke Trisolini; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Virtual and augmented reality in dance have been around for awhile, but Boston Ballet believes it’s the first major company to delve so deeply into the technologies with ballet. The project builds on inroads made over the past year during the company’s first ever virtual season, which not only expanded outreach to audiences around the world but strengthened understanding of technology.

Boston Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen says it is part of being “a living theater” for contemporary audiences. “I didn’t want to be a museum or church, but part of today’s society moving forward,” he explains. “We explored this technology five or six years ago, but the limitations of viewership were so narrow I thought there was no point jumping on the bandwagon. Now that technology has grown by leaps and bounds, it’s opened so many possibilities. In the future, it could be almost a new art form for people to experience dance, music, theater. This is just the beginning.”

It’s not a simple or inexpensive process. The dances are filmed with a globe-like contraption embedded with six different cameras placed in the center of the space to capture a 360-degree surround. Footage from each camera then gets “stitched” into a seamless flow that the viewer controls. Though each dance was filmed in a day, the editing process for each was an intensive week of post-production that Galan says pushed his system to the limit.

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However, he says he is excited to be a part of the company’s exploration of new vistas for ballet. And he can imagine moving beyond virtual reality into augmented reality once that technology is more developed. “In the future, you could be in the Opera House watching a performance, put on AR glasses and see ‘Swan Lake’ [performed] on a lake, or ‘Corsair’ could actually be on a pirate ship going through the ocean. It could really enhance the performance.”

For the current VR series, the choreographers’ challenge was to tailor the dance so viewers could look in any direction at any time and see dancing. Ossola’s approach keeps some of the tradition of putting important material, such as duets, in the forefront. Stromile’s choreography draws the eye around the space in a circular manner. Pickett’s work, however, filled every corner of the space with simultaneous movement. For the dancers, that meant treating every phrase like a solo in case someone chose to look their way, and it was a cardiovascular feat to dance full-out continuously for the piece’s full length every take — the technology couldn’t be edited for starts and stops.

“Normally in a theater, you could go offstage and catch your breath,” explained Stromile, who danced in Pickett’s work in addition to choreographing his own piece. “But we had to fill in all the holes and do it all the way through at one time. We dancers made an agreement that if anything happened, we just keep going!”

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Stromile thinks embracing new technology could be a way to bring more people into the Opera House for “the real thing in person,” he says, adding he’d like to see the company provide a range of interactive virtual experiences, including previews and glimpses behind the scenes. “It gives people who are not your typical avid ballet-goers another way into the ballet world. People are really interested in getting that inside look. You could get funding to get some VR goggles and turn the whole building into an interactive space for people, who would then go buy tickets to see the live performance. I think we’re really on the brink of something incredible that puts us on the forefront and definitely makes Boston Ballet a leader in the field.”

“We like to explore the boundaries and go over the boundaries,” Nissinen claims. “When there’s nobody to follow, you have to lead.”



Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.