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Inside the New Dance Film That Makes You One of the Characters
In many ways, virtual reality is the perfect vehicle for dance. Viewers experience a simulated world with their whole bodies, and can make choices about where they want to watch. Cameras can capture movement happening in all directions around them. Performers feel up close and personal—almost like a live immersive experience.
But other than a few recent experiments that brought ballet into virtual reality, it's largely untouched territory. Until now: A new dance film directed by Saschka Unseld and Lily Baldwin creates a movement-filled world where the viewer is as much a part of the story as the performers.
Through You stars choreographer and Bessie winner Joanna Kotze and former Martha Graham dancer and founder of UC Berkeley's dance program Marni Thomas Wood, who share the role of Julia, and actor Amari Cheatom, who plays her husband, James. Kotze and Baldwin told us what it was like to film dance in virtual reality:
Kotze and Cheatom, PC Cameron Bertron
Can you describe the film for those who haven't been able to watch it?
Lily Baldwin: It's about putting you inside the feeling of being a lover and then becoming a memory. You're in love with this woman, Julia, then eventually she breaks up with you and from that moment on you become a memory. You watch her grow older, marry somebody else, then eventually in her 90s she confronts you, sets herself free and lets the past go.
Joanna Kotze: There's a lot of emphasis on physicality that makes you drawn into the story in a different way than a normal film. It's this short, intense experience of these people moving through time and in and out of love and all that love brings.
Baldwin directing Thomas Wood and Cheatom, PC Cameron Bertron
What are some of the challenges of filming for VR?
LB: In film, anything in the performance that isn't authentic is obvious. Especially in virtual reality, it really asks for the performer to not over-perform and be clear about intentions. The challenge is how to engage this camera in front of you.
JK: Dancing for a VR camera, there's no front, it can see 360 degrees. It's this real presence in the room, rather than being off to the side. It's amazing for dance because you can be anywhere in the space and the camera can capture all of that. Lily was interested in me looking at the camera as if it is a person. Because only one person is watching it at a time, it's a very intimate experience as a performer and a viewer.
Baldwin directing Kotze and Cheatom. PC Cameron Bertron
How do you feel like watching dance in VR differs from watching dance on film?
LB: I like it because I always want to give people their bodies back. I try to have the movement jump off and ignite them. We had people standing on their own legs and we had the movement circle around the viewer. They had to move in order to stay with the action. It gives the viewer a sense of body.
What's it like to watch yourself in VR, since the viewer is so embedded in the film?
JK: It's tricky. It's challenging to watch myself on video under any circumstances and this being so intimate can get pretty emotional. This process of making the movement was very improvisational. I never set anything and I never saw it until the edit was done. It's intense to watch yourself in general but it was even more so, since I didn't know what it would look like because they're creating a story through the editing.
Through You is currently available on Oculus' Samsung Gear VR via the Oculus Video app and will be making a wider release on Jaunt this October.
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.