Pirouetting Into Virtual Reality

Since the late 19th century, classical ballet has maintained and refined a technique that's stayed relatively constant. But *this* ballet? It's totally different.

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Ballet does not have a history of being the most accessible art form. Originating in the court of of King Louis XIV, classical ballet is known for its notably difficult, perfection-driven technique, its pomp and circumstance of performance, and its relegation to fine theaters and opera houses. Film and the advent of YouTube made it easier for anyone to get a taste of ballet's best. And now, the Dutch National Ballet is letting ballet lovers get immersed in the art in an even bigger way.

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The company has created the first virtual reality ballet, Night Fall, which draws inspiration from some of ballet's classic "white acts"—think: the swan-filled fourth act of Swan Lake—and places viewers virtually in the midst of dozens of performing ballerinas.

"With the help of technology we can see things differently, and with the vast amount of visual content that is being created nowadays, it's possible to reach out to totally new audiences." —Ted Brandsen

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So, what exactly does this development mean for art, technology, and the fine threads that run between them? We talked to Dutch National Ballet director Ted Brandsen and press manager Richard Heideman about its latest endeavor.

Take it from this former ballet dancer: you will never find house slippers as warm as these booties.

What was it about the white acts of Swan Lake and La Bayadère that made them the perfect inspiration for this project?

"The white acts are the iconic parts of classical ballet," says Brandsen. "If you mention ballet to someone, they are usually the first image that immediately comes to mind. The otherworldliness and the magic of the white acts made them the absolute perfect inspiration for Night Fall."

XIV probably never envisioned this.
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Why virtual reality? Why this combination of ballet and technology?

"The possibilities that virtual reality can offer open a whole new world in experiencing ballet and art in general," says Brandsen. "We were trying to see if we could create something that was completely new and never done before. As an audience you aren't just a viewer—you can feel like you're part of the performance. It's a unique experience which we could never recreate onstage."

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The company is over 50 years old—how has it continued to innovate in its long history?

"Dutch National Ballet has always been known for its innovative character," says Heideman. "In the 1970s and '80s Dutch choreographers Hans van Manen, Rudi van Dantzig, and Toer van Schayk brought world fame to the company. One of the three, van Manen, created a ballet called Live in 1979, which was one of the first ballets to use live video onstage—the dancers interacted with a cameraman who was also onstage, and everything he recorded was projected simultaneously onto a large screen. More recently, in 2013 we created choreography and provided dancers for the world's first interactive dance game app for smartphones, Bounden."

"Virtual reality opened a gateway to make ballet more accessible to people across the board." — Richard Heideman

What kind of audience was in mind when Night Fall was created?

"One of the goals of this project was to see if we could reach new audiences and reach out to people who would normally not buy a ticket to a theatre or ballet performance, but are willing to give the VR project a try," says Heideman. "Through our Facebook channel the majority of views are by women, which you might expect since ballet traditionally attracts a larger female audience. On YouTube, however, the vast majority of views are by men. Virtual reality opened a gateway to make ballet more accessible to people across the board."

What was the process of creating Night Fall?

"For the choreographer and the dancers it was quite a challenge to think in 360 degrees instead of working on a stage," says Heideman. "There was one 360-degree camera on a stand in the middle of this large industrial space. The camera itself has eight lenses, which recorded constantly. This meant that the choreographer, Peter Leung, and the directors, Jip Samhoud and Marijn Korver from &samhoud Media, had to stay out of sight and therefore were not able to see how a take went as it happened—which made giving corrections a lot more difficult! The dancers also had to interact with the camera instead of 'feeling' the audience. So there were new and exciting experiences for everyone on the team."

This might be the prettiest VR project ever.
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How do you see technology and art working together? How can technology impact art, and vice versa?

"Art can help develop technology and take it to a whole new creative level—and for the arts it opens up new possibilities," says Brandsen. "With the help of technology we can see things differently, and with the vast amount of visual content that is being created nowadays, it's possible to reach out to totally new audiences. The Dutch National Ballet embraces new technologies to stay in the here and now. Ballet isn't just a traditional art form—it's constantly developing and evolving, just like the world around us."

To watch Night Fall and see more of the Dutch National Ballet's work, visit operaballet.nl.

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