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

Headsets and mindsets: the VR experience at Ljubljana

When I think about the future of dance performance I still think about The Theatre. The smell of dusty velvet upholstery, the din of muted gossip in the foyer, the inevitable giant in the seat in front of you – these elements create a framework for live performance evocative of a particular kind of reverence. This manifest sensuality of the performance space was on the forefront of my mind when thinking about Aerowaves’ new Ringside initiative, an ongoing experiment in presenting virtual reality recordings of live dance performances.

But first, some context. Despite my interest in the subject, I found it hard to write about from my apartment. I haven’t been able to curate my environment in a satisfying and productive way (because my cats need attention) (or I have to unpack the dishwasher) (or I have to beat the next level of this game on my phone). Interestingly, I had the same problem last June, during Aerowaves’ online dance festival, where I struggled to watch dance made for the stage on my tiny laptop. As much as I love my tracksuit-pants and slippers, it’s not an outfit that prepares me for a sensitive reception of art. Context is everything.

Ringside at Ljubljana opened with I just want to feel you by Jenna Jalonen, a duet with Jonas Garrido Verwerft – and with a disclaimer: Ringside is still in beta mode, and this work had been filmed last summer with a camera they had decided was too low quality. In other words, the video quality is shit, they’re aware of it, and in the meantime the camera has been updated. I felt at home. Works-in-progress tend to hit my sweet-spot by embodying potential without sacrificing vulnerability.

We sat on swivel chairs, in a circle, in a spectacular Soviet-style gym. In the middle of the circle was a smaller circle, made of wood, rotating continuously, painted with psychedelic patterns. Was it there as a symbolic gesture of the hypnotic effect of VR? An invitation to fall down the rabbit hole of an intensified activation of our suspension of disbelief? Perhaps – but when we placed the headsets over our eyes and everything was properly calibrated and explained, we were plunged into someplace else, devoid of spinning psychedelic disc or the light beaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the gym. Now we were in a small black-box theatre, at night, with different bodies sitting next to us. Jalonen and Verwerft were all of a sudden very close. I could hear their shuffling footfalls, and later see the sweat pooling on the marley beside their exhausted bodies as they breathed heavily into strategically placed microphones on the floor. Sadly, though, no sweet sweat-smells waved over me. I adjusted my headset, and checked my phone for the time, having completely lost track of real life. In front of me, on the floor of the gym, a fellow audience member had made themselves comfortable at my feet. Yes, I thought: personal comfort and public connection. I can get used to this.

The following day, in a rehearsal space in Ljubljana’s Cankarjev Dom cultural centre, the next VR instalment was presented as a double bill: Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s Babae and Rhys Dennis & Waddah Sinada’s Ruins. Here, the arrangement was not circular but rows of chairs facing a screen. I was a pro handling the headsets now, and I watched Babae with glee, totally immersed, wishing that I too could be covered in red glitter as those of us in the room applauded during her curtain call – strangely, the only moment that required the deep suspension of disbelief I had initially anticipated. If the artist isn’t there to hear the applause, what are we actually doing? I felt awkward for a moment and then realised that this isn’t really a presentation of the artist’s work, per se. The presented works are merely a vessel for what’s really at stake here: the possibility of future viable supplements to live performance, especially relevant in a post-Covid landscape.

Next up was Ruins, which was also introduced with a warning: since the day’s programme was now running behind schedule (not uncommon in festival landscapes), we did not have to finish watching the work if we wanted to get to the next venue in time for the following performance.

Headset fully charged and back on, I watched as Dennis and Sinada manipulated the 3D aspect of the camera’s vantage point to play with proximity, finding myself jerking backwards at the forward reach of their intertwined hands, and leaning in as they scootched far upstage, almost completely obscured in the shadow of the white-hot spotlight. Suddenly the image fizzled out, like an accidental blackout in the middle of a live performance. Disorientated, we were rushed out of the room: we had to go go go if we wanted to make the next performance in time!

Hmmm, I thought. Hmmmmm. If we are to give credence to the platform of virtual reality, we have to treat it as kindly and carefully as we would if the artist were actually present. I cannot believe that any artist would cut their performance short due to a scheduling error. I cannot fathom why an organiser would even ask this of an artist. Still, this session was about testing the format of VR, not about presenting an artist’s work. And in this virtual world, as with any recording, hitting pause is a built-in perk when the real reality seems to get in the way.

Ringside is unchartered territory, and with luck (and continued funding) Aerowaves will keep developing this format with articulated and committed intent. I’m here for it, in person or not, mindset calibrated, context and all.

Zee Hartmann