Springback Ringside VR project, Summer ReCollection festival, Ljubljana 2021. Photo © Andrej Lamut

Dance in VR: an introvert’s hideout underneath the goggles

I must have been ten years old when my parents made me discover dance theatre, at a performance by the dance troupe of the school where my father works. My memories of this evening are exceptionally vivid: I was sitting in the front row, slightly more on coté cour, my nose just extended above the stage, while flag wavers sent currents of air through my hair. Ever since, I haven’t only developed an obsession with dance, but also the compulsion of always trying to see a performance from as close as possible, with no other spectators in my range of vision, and the perverted (I admit) fantasy that I’m the sole witness of the performer’s theatrical moment.

So unsurprisingly I was really intrigued by the idea of seeing dance in virtual reality. The idea of being tucked in brain tricking goggles, where an introverted environment unfolds, and where the sensations of dance surround and sink in on me. Aerowaves offered two Springback Ringside sessions during the Summer ReCollection Festival in Ljubljana, presenting VR recordings – rather than pieces specially made for the medium – of works by Jenna Jalonen, Joy Alpuerto Ritter and Rhys Dennis & Waddah Sinada (FUBUNATION). The experience is, to say the least, immersive. You’re teleported into a theatre, right at the edge of a stage, at the rim of two hemispheres: the performer’s one that can only act, and the spectator’s one that can only think. An invisible membrane separates both sides, allowing information to flow only from performer to spectator.

It’s a fascinating experience, and even though it’s not possible to actually feel the air moving, or touch the performers when you reach out your hand (will I look silly if I try?), for the duration of the showing I gladly surrender myself to the illusion. And along with this surrender comes make-believe proximity and intimacy, the feeling that the performer is in front of me, one on one, whispering a secret.

So can we feel kinetic empathy through VR? That’s the central question that drives and inspires the people behind Springback Ringside. For me the answer is yes. But because it’s a very personal experience, there can only be personal answers. And maybe that intrinsic individuality gets overlooked, or disclaimed even, inside the current format of the session. For example, the sound of the performance is not transmitted through headsets but through the room, where it mixes with ambient noise. An attempt to mimic the togetherness and simultaneity of attending a show in the theatre – paradoxical, because Springback Ringside’s intention is not to replace the live performance. I believe the project can benefit from fully embracing the technology, and not shy away from an individualistic approach, with each spectator completely stranded in their own reality. Confinement can be an excellent gateway to contemplation.

Jonas Schildermans