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, Courtesy Through You

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, Courtesy Through You

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, Courtesy Through You

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.

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Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

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