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Brooke Boland


Virtual reality enables the audience perspective to leave the stalls and become part of the action in a boundary-smashing collaboration between choreography and screen.

I want to dance better with VR

ACMI commission: Stuck in the Middle With You. By Matthew Bate and Gideon Obarzanek. Image supplied.

Filmmaker Matthew Bate and choreographer Gideon Obarzanek started their collaboration with a straight-forward narrative: a widower who takes up Latin ballroom classes as a way of working through his grief.

‘It was the most simple story and over that we wanted to see how far we could push the form,’ said Bate.

The resulting film took the audience out of their seats and enabled them to see the work from the perspective of a dancer. I want to dance better at parties was first developed at Adelaide Film Festival’s Hive Lab program and went on to win a Dendy award in 2014 at Sydney Film Festival.

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It also led to ACMI’s first VR commission Stuck in the middle with you,  a second collaboration between Bate and Obarzanek that used virtual reality to literally change the audience viewpoint, physically making the audience part of the action.

‘In a theatre environment doing dance, it’s obviously from one fixed point of view and it’s always wide. When we were shooting I want to dance better at parties we were able to shoot in an observational shot, but also the point of view of people in the dance. You are kind of in it in a way – that makes it quite interesting,’ said Obarzanek.

With the camera taking up position as one of the dancers, the team were able to edit into the point of view of the performer to show what it is like to be on the floor dancing. This added another choreographic element you don’t normally have in live performance.

Stuck in the middle with you pushes audience perspective further into audience participation. In a completely immersive experience, the participant first appears as a member of the audience watching a performance by the Sydney Dance Company. After falling asleep in their chair, they wake up to find themselves on stage with the dancers. ‘The dancers are like, “what are you doing here” and try to dance around you,’ explained Bate.

‘What was a dance piece, a short film, was now a totally solipsist experience,’ he said.

Participatory art and VR

While the experiential benefits of VR are currently being explored in relation to live performance through VR filmed concerts and sporting events, this work pushes the form further through narrative and story. Not only does it bring the performance to the viewer but the work takes this a step further by acknowledging the viewers presence and asking them to participate.

‘A lot of the VR I’ve seen prior to this piece, you’re kind of a fly on the wall and you don’t really exist. It’s point of view but no one acknowledges your presence in that space. This film is different in that way. It absolutely recognises that you are another human being there amongst other people and it is quite a different feeling when you are watching this film because of that.’

‘At the end of the film, Sydney Dance Co teaches you a dance – they ask if you want to join the performance and teach you this little dance. More often than not, most people actually learn the steps and do it. So when you are watching the people watching the film, they are actually doing this dance performance at the end of the film and it really is quite amusing. It is a performance in itself, watching the people watching the film.’

The experiential benefits of VR are being widely explored in relation to live performance through VR filmed concerts and sporting events but this work pushes the form further through narrative and story. Not only does it bring the performance to the viewer but the work takes this a step further by acknowledging the viewers presence and asking them to participate.

‘A lot of the VR I’ve seen prior to this piece, you’re kind of a fly on the wall and you don’t really exist. It’s point of view but no one acknowledges your presence in that space. This film is different in that way. It absolutely recognises that you are another human being there amongst other people and it is quite a different feeling when you are watching this film because of that.’

‘At the end of the film, Sydney Dance Co teaches you a dance – they ask if you want to join the performance and teach you this little dance. More often than not, most people actually learn the steps and do it. So when you are watching the people watching the film, they are actually doing this dance performance at the end of the film and it really is quite amusing. It is a performance in itself, watching the people watching the film.’

The viewers on stage watching the film Stuck in the middle with you while those waiting their turn watch them. Image supplied. 

It’s an exciting new space for dance and film and Obarzanek thinks we will see more collaborations in the area of VR in future.

‘One of the things I’ve noticed as a choreographer working in dance for many years is that dance doesn’t come off on film as interesting as it is live. You are kind of removed from it and because it doesn’t have a narrative, I don’t think you can connect with it as well as you do in a live space.’

‘The experience I’ve had with VR and dance is the closest I’ve gotten to that. In fact, it is even closer than live performance because you are actually in it and people are whizzing past you or hurdling towards you and moving away. One of the things I enjoy the most about watching dance in the real world is being in the dance studio and being really close. You know, you’re not in a theatre, you are actually in a room with them and VR is a way of getting very close to dance. It’s like being in the rehearsal room for dancers. So I think VR, interestingly, is probably the best film format I’ve come across to see dance.’

‘I expect there will be an ongoing relationship between dance and VR for quite a while.’


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