What's It Like to Make a Virtual Reality Ballet? One Dancer Explains.

May 25, 2017

“Wait—explain it to me once more. If I move my phone around like this, then what will it look like?”

This was me, last August. Pacific Northwest Ballet had commissioned my husband, corps member Price Suddarth, to choreograph Silent Resonance, the company’s first “virtual reality ballet,” on fellow PNB dancer Miles Pertl and myself. He would partner with software company Pixvana to construct a work meshing two mediums: ballet and the virtual universe. Captured with a 360 degree camera system, the film would allow viewers to become an intimate part of a work, rather than an outside observer. On the surface, all the elements of the creative process made up a typical workday—the studio, the steps, the sweaty individuals next to me. Nevertheless, I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around what exactly we were making—or what it would ultimately look like.

As ballet dancers, we work in two consecutive systems—in-studio rehearsal, followed by onstage performance. We obsessively practice each step, plan their execution and pray they go accordingly. We know the precise nature of the performance the minute the curtain drops. Then, brilliant or not, it is done. Filming a virtual reality ballet was nothing like that.

Price worked with Miles and me in a studio for about six hours to build the structure, steps, and mood of the pas de deux. However, the choreography was just a piece of the much larger puzzle; the Pixvana crew had an equal part to play in the work’s creation, using the GoPro Omni—a camera system that utilizes six separate GoPros tethered together.

The GoPro Omni captured the performance from six different angles.
Photo by Julia Fryett, Courtesy Pixvana.

We met with the film crew for a practice day. They watched us run through it a few times, and with the incorporation of a new lens (literally), questions emerged: “Since there is a 360 degree point of view, should Miles run all the way around the camera, or stay entirely in front of it?” “Should this section move at a curve, as to follow the centripetal field of vision, or stay flat?”

We addressed those questions before meeting for the final filming a week later. Because the GoPro Omni’s six cameras all faced a different direction, it captured the whole piece from every angle, every time. However, it wasn’t a normal one-and-done performance. We would film, process, discuss, and 10 or so minutes later film again. (Good thing it was only a three-minute pas de deux!) New ideas continued to arise. For instance, about five takes in, director Scott Squires taped off a box measuring about 5′ x 5′. Could we perform the piece inside it? He thought it could create a more intimate atmosphere. I asked about 30 questions in 6.5 seconds: “Do we mark it? Is it mostly just faces? Do we do just arms? Should I do that lift?” We did our best to dance fully while staying practically stationary throughout—what a strange feeling.

Four hours later and nine takes in, we were finished. I felt a different kind of exhaustion—rather than one adrenaline-filled burst, the process had been a constantly morphing marathon. Still, nothing felt “over.” After a typical performance, my brain goes on instant replay—that pirouette was iffy, that manege felt smooth, that arabesque was high. But good or bad, the book is closed. Sitting on the studio floor, as they took down lights and packed up equipment, I felt different. That spin felt a lot better on take three. I almost knocked Miles over in take five. What take(s) would they use? One? Multiple? I couldn’t sum this one up.

The following months consisted of back and forth emailing, editing, new ideas presented, and old ones scrapped. Finally, four months later, Silent Resonance had its world premiere screening. Rather than fake eyelashes and blush, I wore a headset and goggles—and I had no idea what to expect. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that generally, as a dancer, I don’t love watching videos of myself. But I smiled when I finished this one. Maybe Pixvana’s innovative contributions—a night sky, echo effects—are just what I need added to every performance video!

Afterwards, a woman asked Price if he thought this kind of technology would eventually replace live performance—could our livelihood as performing artists undergo a drastic shift within the digital age? I think he encapsulated it well: “[Virtual reality] creates a new platform for dance to be experienced…. It allows a viewer to step inside of a work, as opposed to just watch it.” With technological advancement, we can broaden dance’s voice “It gives us an opportunity to reach people where they are.”

Watch Silent Resonance in 360 degrees below.

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