Dazzle: Solo, a VR experience by Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson. Photo courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

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Dancing virtually into the London Film Festival

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Dazzle: Solo, a VR experience by Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson. Photo courtesy of BFI London Film Festival
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Ka Bradley
Alongside dance documentaries, the new LFF Expanded strand is taking steps into virtual dancing

To begin with an acknowledgment of how everything has changed and the world of theatre faces unprecedented challenges seems, seven months in to our paradigm-shifting plague, so obvious it feels almost like the sort of clichéd opener an editor would remove. [Something less commonplace?], a marginal note might read.

It’s fortunately possible to think of the BFI London Film Festival’s new virtual and augmented reality strand, LFF Expanded, as innovative engagement with the medium of film in and of its own right, rather than only a way of adjusting to this terrible new reality where theatres close and audiences shrink and jobs are cut. Though it might be difficult to look at film and performance with optimism right now, LFF Expanded’s programme assures us that boundaries are still being tested, play and curiosity and experimentation are still supported in a time of uncertainty. That virtual reality and film can also be beamed directly into the living rooms, bedrooms and home offices of audiences is relevant and cheering: we continue to be an audience, together apart.

We are at the very start of the age of virtual and augmented reality: the technology exists, but sometimes at glitching, counterintuitive or superfluous levels. (In ten years, we might look at the helmet-like headsets the way we now look at 1980s brick-thick carphones.) When VR works, viewers come away with a real sense of having witnessed the crystallisation of a new art form. When it doesn’t, it can feel baffling or frustrating, making grouchy Luddites out of the most tech-savvy.


Harry Silverlock’s 360° documentary Gimme One teleports the viewer into British ballroom culture

Fortunately, the Expanded strand has some inspiring examples of how new technology might work in service of dance and performance. This was striking in the 360° film Gimme One. A 360° film differs from VR and AR in that it does not promise an augmented layer on top of our reality, nor does it plunge us into a box-fresh coded reality outside of our own. It is, simply, a film that you sit within, rather than one which you face on a screen – a basic benchmark for ‘immersive’ theatre.

Gimme One is a documentary film about British ballroom culture – focusing on London and Bristol – and in some respects has some conventional documentary frameworks. Talking heads (members of the ballroom community) describe their personal experience of vogueing, of the ‘houses’ they belong to, of the ways the ballroom community has encouraged them to explore and accept their gender identities and sexualities. Their first-person descriptions are interspersed with filmed fragments from vogue balls, and with stylised, computer-rendered neon silhouettes of vogueing dancers against depthless VR black. As with the Expanded thread’s other 360° films, at-home audiences can experience Gimme One at home on YouTube.

The VR format, however, does something that feels special. Those talking heads appear as real people sitting in front of us, making eye contact, laughing in conversation and – though our part of the script is silent – this makes their private revelations feel much more intimate. This film was put together with the engaged collaboration of its performers (contrast Paris is Burning, considered by many in the ballroom community to have exploited members of New York’s ballroom scene for the eventual acclaim and profit of its director); our ability to face and greet these performers emphasises this personal connection. Teleported into a nightclub, we sit in the midst of the audience to watch the dancers walk (as vogueing across a strip of dance floor is known); it’s impossible to contain a surge of tenderness and nostalgia for crowds we’ve sat in, nightclubs we’ve drunk at, people we’re been crammed with, shoulder to shoulder. Hip-deep in revellers – the floor levels can take a bit of adjustment – I thought about my friends who have been felled by post-viral chronic exhaustion, who suffer from anxiety in crowded spaces, who live far away from centres of queer culture but long to be immersed in it. This technology is in its infancy, and cannot replicate interaction, but its initial forays into recording the buzz of the world feel optimistic. Even the computer-rendered silhouettes, with their colour schemes that felt humorously retro, recalling the computer generated world of 1992’s sci-fi horror action film The Lawnmower Man, were a wink at the possibilities.


Patrick Chiha’s backstage documentary about the touring performers of Gisèle Vienne’s Crowd

The standard, non-VR/360° documentary film format has developed its own language, techniques and expectations. A thought-provoking comparison could be drawn with Si c’était de l’amour (If It Were Love), Patrick Chiha’s documentary about the touring performers of Gisèle Vienne’s Crowd, a dance piece inspired by the 1990s rave scene. Si c’était de l’amour is feature-length (Gimme One is about fifteen minutes long), and intersperses filmed segments of Crowd with interviews with the dancers, and segments from the rehearsal, at which Vienne directs in French and English, with touch, with demonstration and with her voice.

Crowd is a thrilling work and part of the pleasure of this film is watching the cake being made, as it were – listening to Vienne describe what she wants, how it should be achieved, then seeing the dancers realise the emotions, the storylines of their ‘characters’, in such legible and visible ways. There’s pleasure in seeing exemplary performance too, of course – at one point, the performers moved from wilting stillness to jerking, ecstatic movement with such suddenness that I thought it was a camera trick, and not (as it was) absolute control of breath and limb, to evoke the judder of a beat and the high point of an upper hitting. Chiha’s exquisite construction means that that ‘documentary’ segments – where the dancers talk, confess, describe – feel as if they too are following the trajectory of a night out at a rave: the initial, muted but excited opener; then chattiness, the intense energy of the rave in motion; the late-night smoking area confessions, the raw conversations; then the blue light of dawn, sleep pulling, exhaustion calling. All these energies are summoned by simple conversations on camera, using some clever lighting and careful editing.

The very use of such editing and direction emphasises Si c’était de l’amour’s existence as a film – not just a filmed version of a separate work of art; it is to be enjoyed as a film, as one might watch, for example, Gaspard Noé’s Climax. It does not attempt to immerse its viewer or bring them in to the experience of the dance; it puts the viewer on the outside, to admire a polished gem. Evidently, 360° film and conventional film can aim for two completely different experiences without taking away from one another.


Video trailer – in non-immersive 2D only – for Dazzle, by Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson

What about truly virtual realities? In the interactive work Dazzle: Solo, Alexa Pollmann, Bine Roth, Bruno Martelli and choreographer Ruth Gibson reimagine the Chelsea Art Club’s 1919 Great Dazzle Ball. The geometric shapes on camouflage ships inspired the original ball; camouflage was known as ‘dazzle painting’. In Dazzle: Solo, the solo viewer ‘enters’ a ‘room’ and is surrounded by shifting platforms and giant floating cubes, all in black and white. It’s dazzling; it’s disorientating. Unlike Gimme One, Dazzle: Solo is intended to drop the viewer into a contained, alternate reality, obeying its own strange and intriguing physics. How might dance develop under peculiar new gravities?

Audience members can use their handheld joysticks to navigate from ‘room’ to ‘room’. It’s like entering a chessboard that has come alive and had an identity crisis. In one ‘room’, we are in the tunnels of a strange city, the grating above us filled with dancers ticking and tocking and turning in beautiful spirals. In another, we are inside a black-and-white soft-play tech nightmare, where the walls bulge and bubble, and peculiar, quasi-humanoid shapes stretch and bounce in and out of canniness. The overall ambience is utterly futuristic, and because of that vaguely exciting, but Gibson’s choreography, which feels mathematically curious and exact when it is most visible on the obviously human figures, is sometimes lost in the overpowering visuals.

One thing the Expanded strand also impressed on me was the necessity of front of house staff in the world of performance arts. Navigation from ‘room’ to ‘room’ in Dazzle: Solo baffled me until I was helped, and indeed calibrating my headset was impossible without assistance. The front of house were our guides to this new world, there to ensure we entered safely, donned our cleaned, virus-free headsets, and to guid us out. Our VR flights of imagination would have been much less fulfilling without the foundations laid in the real world. Moreover, the Oculus Rift S headset retails at £399, the cheapest HTC Vive at £549, substantially more than a the price of a cinema ticket, even to a premiere at Leicester Square. Though LFF Expanded is free, most people will not be able to view the VR segments at home.


All Kinds of Limbo: behind the scenes

The experience of a VR performance can feel like a private viewing, an extraordinary gift. In All Kinds of Limbo, for example, we feel privileged to be the sole audience at Nubiya Brandon’s gig, as she performs original music by Raffy Bushman and the NuShape Orchestra. Commissioned by the National Theatre to respond to their production of Andrea Levy’s A Small Island, All Kinds of Limbo reflects the influence of Caribbean culture on the UK’s music scene. Brandon raps against the backdrop of a distant city, lit by the streetlamp in a lonely street, to a grime track; she twinkles at us and in a gorgeous 1930s evening dress, on the stage of an Art Deco club, stirring her hips through a calypso ballad. It feels as if this charisma, this wonder, these sweeping filmic landscapes, have been designed especially for us – which is, of course, the potency and potential of such works. This is heightened by the necessity of Covid-19 restrictions; pre-pandemic viewings of All Kinds of Limbo were shown to 20 people at a time, who were able to move about in the virtual space together.

But this sense of intimacy with art is impossible without a broader connection with art at the level of community – ‘reggae’ and ‘A Small Island’ and ‘theatre’ are equally meaningless if all we want is bright colours and beautiful people beamed straight under our eyelids. If we don’t safeguard our performance spaces – the staff who run them, the companies that perform in them – we give up the fundaments of what art is supposed to give us: a shared imaginative space where we can find a common emotional language to communicate. Both Dazzle: Solo and All Kinds of Limbo were intended for small, not solo, audiences; their futuristic vision always included participation and collectivity.


Adrien M and Claire B: Acqua Alta at Théâtre National de Chaillot, Paris

This strikes afresh when considering the augmented reality piece Acqua Alta – Crossing the Mirror, and another conventional, non-VR film: David Byrne’s live performance of his album American Utopia, directed by Spike Lee. Acqua Alta is an interactive installation – in ten scenes, a story about a man, a woman, a house and a devastating flash flood unfold and undulate across the pages of a giant book. These monochrome scenes, beautifully drawn and animated by artists Adrien M & Claire B, are visible through the screen of an iPad. The movement is based on performances by dancers Dimitri Hatton and Satchie Noro, and is deliciously calligraphic – Hatton and Noro flow and stumble across the page, their bodies sometimes fluid sentences, and sometimes bent back or struggling against rising water, as if the abrupt punctuation of the external has broken the speech of their bodies.

Its magic is the very magic that AR often fails to live up to, in these early stages of its form – it suggests a secret new dimension to the everyday, in this case the paper sculptures popping out of the book. The pleasure we take from it is knowing our experience of the space around us, of our bodies and the bodies we interact with, has been touched by the fantastical. We couldn’t achieve it without the solidity of place where the fantastic can occur, where we can dip into unreality.


David Byrne and Spike Lee on the making of American Utopia

American Utopia is a wonderful filmed artefact of a joyous performance. David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, ambles and skips with his barefoot band across a simple grey box of a stage. Everyone is dressed in a loose, comfortable-yet-formal grey suit, and the big smiles, precise but satisfyingly unembellished choreography, and the generous upbeat tempo of the album American Utopia (alongside some more classic Talking Heads songs) gives the whole film a charming The Good Place vibe. The two dancers of the grey-suit cast are members of choreographer Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theater; their cheering bounces and crisp, semaphore-like arm movements merge seamlessly with the overall buzz of a brisk, bustling, optimistic neighbourhood jam. It’s such a charismatic film, so seamlessly recorded, so immediate and tight in its direction, that it straddles I’m glad I’m here and I wish I could have been there. The film is wonderful for everyone who couldn’t be – but the live experience of theatre will always be a bright, high point. 


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