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.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.