‘Two years ago it was impossible’: how tech turns dance into a multisensory fantasy

From the Barbican in London to shopping centres around the country, audiences can become part of sophisticated new XR dance spectaculars – diving into Lewis Carroll’s imagination or an extravagant ballroom

I’m in an abandoned-looking house, where a woman appears like a dancing apparition. Then I’m going down a rabbit hole into a tea party in a bright yellow field. I’m conducting avatars moving to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; taking part in a dance class where the teacher is a hologram; arriving at a grand Parisian party dressed in Chanel.

These are my recent forays into the world of extended reality (XR) in dance. It is technology that we are told is leading us towards a new metaverse, but in practice can often seem more like watching bad graphics in very uncomfortable headgear and wondering what the point is. Nevertheless, a number of choreographers are exploring what XR could bring to dance, whether in virtual reality (VR), where you are completely immersed in a different world via a large headset; or augmented reality (AR), where you wear glasses that add images into the space around you.

Like stepping into a Disney movie … Le Bal de Paris.
Like stepping into a Disney movie … Le Bal de Paris. Photograph: Blanca Li Dance Company

In an art form that depends on theatres not everyone has access to, XR could be used to attend a virtual performance, or beam specially made dances into your own house. Dance East has even been using AR glasses and 3D volumetric video in schools to provide a virtual teacher to lead dance sessions.

Choreographer Jasmin Vardimon took a dive into VR during the pandemic. Her Alice in VR Wonderland is touring UK shopping centres in the back of a converted truck. I tried it out in a car park in Ashford, ushered in by uniformed attendants, sat in a chair that spins 360 degrees so you can follow the journey, and I was happily magicked into Alice’s world.

‘The performers engage with you on a personal level’ … Alice in VR Wonderland.
‘The performers engage with you on a personal level’ … Alice in VR Wonderland. Photograph: Ben Harries

“I always felt dance on video was not doing it justice,” says Vardimon. “But in VR it’s transformed because the dancers are your size, not tiny people on a screen. It makes you feel like you’re in the space with them. When you sit in a theatre the performers are far away from you, but here they come really close and engage with you on a personal level.”

Vardimon’s piece is certainly a step beyond watching dance recorded for the small screen. But a new production by the Spanish choreographer Blanca Li goes way beyond anything I’ve experienced in VR dance. Once you get past the complicated tech setup, wearing a backpack, headset, wrist and ankle sensors, it’s like stepping into a Disney movie, absorbed into fantastical settings full of surprising reveals: an enormous ballroom with hundreds of choreographed guests, an endless starry night, an extravagant garden party, a Parisian nightclub filled with can-can girls. It is multisensory: on a boat trip you feel the wind brush past you; you smell roses in bloom.

Lyndsey Winship putting on the XR equipment for Le Bal de Paris.
‘Way beyond anything I’ve experienced in VR dance’ … Lyndsey Winship gears up for Le Bal de Paris. Photograph: The Guardian

As well as the scale and imagination, what makes Li’s piece different is that while VR experiences are usually for one or two people, here you are part of a group who can all see and interact with each other’s avatars and the performers – you can talk, laugh and dance together. When Li had the idea for Le Bal de Paris, the technology to do it didn’t exist. “I had this dream: how could we be in a virtual reality space but with real people, and share the experience?” she says. Often you don’t see your own body in a VR world. “You are just like a spirit; you put the glasses on, you are in a beautiful place but you don’t exist.” Li approached the French VR studio Backlight, and together they gradually worked out how to put the viewer’s body into the space alongside more and more other people.

Li has paid as much attention to detail in Le Bal de Paris as she would any stage show. She asked Chanel to design the costumes – “I couldn’t have the dresses made by a group of boys who design video games” – and they created a virtual collection for her, which, delightfully, participants also get to “wear”. She worked on making sure the dresses moved like real fabric (when I kicked my leg, the white satin of my gown slipped away like an actual dress) and that bodies move almost as gracefully as dancers do.

The show is a musical, although the plot is neither here nor there compared with the visual wonder. I was certainly more lost in the 35-minute experience than any other I’d tried, and less aware of the gear and how silly I must have looked from the outside. Li expects many more shows like hers to be made in the coming years, but loves the fact that the audience coming to see it now don’t really know what to expect. “I like the idea of doing things that could not ever have been done before,” she says. “To say: two or three years ago this was impossible. But today we can do it.”


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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