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.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.