Traditionally, the art form of ballet has been viewed by many as a bit elitist — expensive, rarified, perhaps a little intimidating. Boston Ballet hopes to dispel those attitudes with its launch today of a free online content hub called ÜNI. Curated by the company’s artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, the site features immersive dance films, international collaborative projects, and virtual reality (VR) performances, all free to anyone with access to the Internet. It’s the company’s big push to make the art form of ballet more inclusive, accessible, and equitable.
The company also hopes ÜNI will broaden the appeal of ballet and attract new audiences. Not just those stymied by cost and location, but younger viewers and people who never considered the art form as an engaging form of entertainment and enrichment.
Boston Ballet collaborated with Denise Korn, ÜNI design director and strategic adviser, and Gensler Boston to develop the design of the ÜNI website and the project’s branding. The name ÜNI, which Nissinen says means “oneness” in Greek and “a dream” in Finnish, conjures a sense of unification and universality. “The heart of it is to bring people together, to unify people,” he says.
Works featured on the ÜNI site were choreographed specifically for a digital platform, and they were filmed with the goal of inviting the audience into the performance in new ways. ÜNI viewers with virtual reality headsets will have access to a number of multi-sensory performances that allow them to control their experience from the center of the performance space. However, most of the content will be non-VR and easily viewable on phone, pad, or computer.
To further increase accessibility and exposure, Boston Ballet plans a social media campaign, with influencers helping spread the word and “break the language of dance down,” says Nissinen. “Everybody has a heartbeat, and everybody is a dancer at heart, so let’s demystify it, break those boundaries.”
Each season, Boston Ballet will refresh ÜNI with new content with an eye toward highlighting underrepresented voices in the dance world, like Chyrstyn Fentroy’s “Preface,” an engaging, multi-layered work for film captured in various locations at Boston’s Liberty Hotel. Currently, ÜNI also features performances from its Dance in VR Series — Helen Pickett’s “Petal” and Ken Ossola’s “Zoom In” — plus Nanine Linning’s “La Voix Humaine” and a docu-style piece on John Lam’s “Moving Parts.”
Meredith (Max) Hodges, executive director of Boston Ballet, says ÜNI is the culmination of a concerted effort over the past year to invest in expanding the company’s knowledge and technology for making virtual projects. Nissinen adds, “During COVID, we started making films, then that started evolving, [becoming] more and more relevant, another way to have dance connect to people and give to people who don’t have access.” He says it also presents an opportunity to revitalize the arts and reflects “the beginning of a new age in performance art … the next iteration of dance.”
Karen Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.