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

Virtually there? A ringside seat at Springback Ringside

Some things you just don’t anticipate when watching a dance show in VR for the first time. As a critic, for example, I suddenly realised that I couldn’t take notes. I’m used to writing in the dark, but somehow looking down through my headset and seeing not the notebook on my lap and pen in hand but the empty floorspace of some unknown theatre, bamboozled my brain enough that I failed to write anything at all, even illegibly. Perhaps I might improve with practice.

That reminds me of something else: in VR there’s no problem with legroom. From your seat, you can stretch your legs out all you want because they, like you, occupy a wholly different dimension from the performance.

I’m finding all this out at the first public presentation of Springback Ringside, an experiment in the VR recording and presentation of stage choreography conceived, a year before the pandemic, by Aerowaves’ director John Ashford. We’re at the Summer ReCollection festival in Ljubljana, and we have two Ringside sessions over two days. In the first, we are seated in a circle looking inwards; in the second, in rows facing an empty stage. At the end of each session, we take off the VR headsets for a hosted meet-the-artists session on a flat screen, happening live via Zoom.

I can report that the VR performance is unaffected by our seating arrangement, but in real life the circle gives a much more convivial feel, and makes the transitions into and out of the VR show – what gamers call ‘onboarding’ and ‘offboarding’ – more comfortable. With the flatscreen artist Q&As we of course have to face one direction only, but we’re all far more used to this format nowadays. It’s a convenient and valuable feature to have, and so familiar that no one bats an eyelid about the medium, or its social or technical constraints and glitches.

What of the VR itself? The first showing is BEAT by Jenna Jalonen and Jonas Garrido Verweft, filmed last autumn at a Croatian theatre with a camera that was, Ashford explains, too low-resolution to continue with. That much is evident early on: the image is quite blurred even when the dancers are close up, their facial features quite indistinct. Yet it’s a very powerfully physical work, and although the VR experience can only distantly approximate the kinaesthetic experience of live theatre, it does – even at this blurred level – beat the flatscreen (especially smallscreen) experience rather easily. Not only are you close up to the performance in your virtual front-row seat, but the VR camera affords a depth of field (better close up than distant) and a human size and scale that you can’t get on film. You can also turn your head and decide where to look – a surprisingly liberating feeling after so much immobile staring at pre-edited camera angles and framings.

The second session – Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s solo Babae (filmed in Prague) and Fubunation’s Ruins duet (filmed in London) – uses higher quality VR cameras, with notably better resolution. The experience becomes markedly less like some fuzzy CCTV version of VR and closer to cinema (though still a long way off in terms of crispness). The facial features are recognisable, though the glass-eye effect can stray into creepy uncanny valley territory. This double-bill brings home two convictions. First, it’s quite hard to watch two VR shows in a row; the brain and the body get tired more easily than in the theatre. Second, no matter how effective the physical simulation, realism, kinaesthetic empathy and so on, the choreography still needs to interest you. Yes, Ruins suffered from being second on the bill, but I also found it choreographically much flatter, and can’t imagine that I would want to see it live (though if I get the opportunity to do so, I will definitely test this hunch out).

Finally: what’s this for? Many of the audience focused on the inadequacies of VR compared with live performance, but I think it’s more useful to compare it with video – which doesn’t replace performance but can and often does play a part in the rehearsal, production, selection, promotion, distribution of and access to dance. As Ashford noted, in this 25th anniversary of Aerowaves, the network was in a very practical sense founded on the VHS cassette, which became replaced by the DVD, and later the Vimeo link. Though the technology is not ready yet and widespread adoption will take more time still, VR could well be the next step.

Sanjoy Roy