News & Blogs

15 October 2021
Author: The Place

The best seat in the house – What is it like to experience dance performances in Virtual Reality?

After more than a year of living in a mostly digital reality, we have all tried and grown accustomed to taking classes on Zoom, holding meetings on Teams, or watching shows online through streaming. Many artists have even managed to create new work remotely, exploring the opportunities of the digital sphere through film, gaming technology or interactive virtual landscapes. But Virtual Reality? That feels like another step further into the future, and it’s a step our partners at Aerowaves are trailing now.

Wearing large oversized goggles that seem to trap the wearer inside an experience no one else is sharing, whipping their heads around to look at things that aren’t there, is something we would normally associate with teenagers playing video games. But could it be a way to experience dance? It is something John Ashford, Director and Founder of the Aerowaves Dance network firmly believes in, and not just as a reaction to the pandemic.

At the moment, filming works with the VR camera is a way of documenting shows that were not able to tour, and likely won’t be for some time. International touring will remain difficult for the foreseeable future. In that context, VR technology is a way to offer these works a lease of life and enable them to be seen around the world without anybody having to cross borders.

But apart from circumventing quarantine rules and travel restrictions, virtual touring also addresses other problems that will remain concerns within the arts even post pandemic. One is accessibility, the other is climate change. A suitcase full of 20 VR goggles has a decidedly smaller carbon footprint than an entire cast and crew flying around the world. Another consideration is affordability. Touring is expensive and travelling to or from countries that aren’t well connected can become financially unfeasible. VR may be an opportunity to still present work in places that wouldn’t otherwise have been accessible. It may also act as a ‘taster’ introducing new audiences to dance. “There are towns all over Europe where there is no facility for dance, but there is a venue, a town hall or a hotel conference room, where you can put twenty people in a room to watch a VR performance” explains Ashford. As a first step into communities with limited mobility, as well as schools, hospitals, prisons or old people’s homes, VR can be genuinely useful.

The idea is not to replace live performance or to deny artists any live bookings, but rather to encourage communities to try dance and create an experience that may lead to a real life appetite for dance in the future.

The reality of filming for Virtual Reality is a laborious, detailed process that The Place was able to witness when the Aerowaves team used our theatre in February this year to film FUBU Nation’s work “Ruins”, one of the UKs entries that make up the twenty Aerowaves artists for 2021. While filming dance for the camera always has its challenges, the VR camera needs to take everything in in a single shot, so every angle and every light setting has to be carefully planned in advance. Every single minute of footage can take up to 30 minutes of rendering and preparation. The camera has telescopic vision, which makes it the most similar option to the human eye, able to zoom in and out without any distortion or fish eye effect. When the performer comes closer, it looks as if they are standing right in front of you. Audiences have described their experience as having the best seat in the house, or a feeling of the performers being there just for you.

Is VR an alternative to live performance? Definitely not, and neither is it meant to be. “I always felt that once you put dance on the screen, it becomes a different medium”, says Enya Belak, who is directing the VR experiment for Aerowaves. ”It’s a new way of seeing dance and a new way of exploring what we can do with the art form. The only way we can use digital media is to treat it as a whole new performance. As a replacement it will obviously never be as good as live, but if you create something new, people will connect with it!”

It’s an experiment for sure, but one we are excited to try for ourselves!

From 25 - 27 Oct The Place is presenting three dance performances as VR experineces. 

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