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Aktualisiert: 23. Feb. 2021

Speaking about digital transformation of the ballet world and not mentioning 3ème scène of the Paris Opera & Ballet Theatre would be a miss-out. After the Palais Garnier in 1875 and the Opéra Bastille in 1989, the Paris Opera has decided to build its 3e Scène (3rd stage) in the digital space already 5 years ago. Stéphane Lissner, its visionary director back in 2015, could not have imagined to which extent it will gain relevancy in 2020.

The idea was to give a carte blanche to famous visual artists and filmmakers, such as Valérie Donzelli, Fanny Ardent or the French star YouTuber Jhon Rachid, in order to enable an exchange between the “7th art” as the French call the art of film and the world of ballet and opera, while at the same time attracting new audiences. The manifesto of this unique digital art platform claims: “This 3e Scène has neither equal nor model. Open to the world, it invents a space where tradition, creation and new technology unite as symbols of modernity.” When the pandemic started to spread globally almost a year ago and most of the theaters first realized the imminent need of digital stage solutions, the Paris Opera already had one ready. Looking back at the first year of the pandemic, I wondered if and how the Paris Opera actually uses its first mover advantage in terms of innovations on a digital stage?

Clinamen by visual artist Hugo Arcier premiered on 3e scène just at the beginning of the pandemic, on 25 March 2020. The title of the piece originates from the poem De rerum natura by Lucretia and stands for a force which allows atoms to deviate from their trajectory, which corresponds to the elevation idea of ballet and to the capacity of dancers to fight gravity. With help of 3D motion capture technologies Arcier deconstructed bodies of dancers into atoms or spheres which are connected solely through movement, colliding with and moving apart from each other to almost tribal sounds, sending us “back to the roots”, the prehistoric times. “At the end of the film, the spheres disappear, but the movement is still there" claims Acier who also designed a futuristic Palais Garnier and Paris surrounding it for the last part of its digital ballet playing with the duality of eternity and instantaneity. To enjoy this piece at its best, I would recommend to watch it on a big screen in a completely dark room.

The logical progression of the experience for a spectator would be going one step further and offering to see the piece within virtual reality using VR headsets or in augmented reality while walking through the theater. Maybe the spectator could even “dance with atoms” and influence its movement, becoming a part of the performance and explore the futuristic spaces of reimagined Palais Garnier?

États Transitoires is an older piece presented on 3e scène in 2016, which caught my attention due to its similarity to Clinamen in the aspect of exploration of the empty theater spaces, but this time of one of the biggest modern opera houses in the world: the Opéra Bastille. A contemporary ballet performance imagined by visual artists of Ill-Studio highlights the correlation between body, spirit and architecture. The ballet is composed of multiple and variable personalities of the same individual, played by Axel Ibot dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet. Also like Clinamen it presents a return to the basics of movement, subject to the laws of gravity before being governed by thought.

The void space of the theatre and the loneliness of the dancer are quite symbolic for the perceptions and feelings the entire humanity goes through in the times of pandemic. Due to its meditative and immersive aura, États Transitoires also somehow reminded me of ballet by Hans van Manen “Live” which I covered in my first blog post. And here is another thought: Why not extend this one as well within an augmented or virtual reality project to explore the spaces of the Opera Bastille in a different way?

In times of social distancing which are there to stay for longer than we thought, wearing VR glasses or using a special App on your phone while moving through space might be a new solution for dance performances, experienced not seated but also in movement? In case we have to stay at home, like it is the case right now, it would be worth considering the possibilities of sending the VR headsets to the homes of people, interested to discover ballet and the theatre space in a new perspective?

On the one hand, incorporating these extensions into its strategy could be a step further for a dramaturgically unique 3e scène which seems to keep holding on its top-down approach after 5 years of existence instead of opening new, more interactive and immersive possibilities through VR & AR. On the other, should the technical aspect and the constant pressure to innovate prevail or should it be more about the consistency of the initial concept, which is the meeting point of video art with ballet & opera? If every big historical musical theatre starts going into VR, will it be remain authentic?

Aurélie Dupont’s predecessor, Benjamin Millepied, lamented the traditionalism and archaic structures reigning at the Paris Opera, which was supposedly one of the reasons for his abrupt departure, but isn’t it important to stay true to your traditions in some points and being selective when it comes to innovation?

While working on this post, I discovered a video keynote Innover en période de turbulences (Innovating in turbulent times) of the Paris Opera deputy director Martin Ajdari who presents another digital platform launched in April 2020 - aria.

Aria is a mobile-first platform available only on mobile or tablet devices and focusing on "digital natives" by using interactive and gamification features. The point of entry is a chat with an artificially intelligent chat host, which asks you about your topic preferences and the amount of time you have to explore the content offered:

In this first chat with aria I somehow did not manage to find the promised gamification features such as quizzes, even if I pressed "I got a question" and typed "Ballet quizz", aria was sending me more videos on ballet. When I tried "Discover more topics", aria suggested "Blind test" which sounds fun, but the topic was not ballet anymore, but opera. "Blind test" is a type of quizz, where you have to recognize music excerpts from different ballets or operas, and I managed to find a ballet-related blind test "Xmas in the ballet" when I left the chat and went to "Explore". All in all, there are a lot of interesting pieces of content to plunge into completely free of charge.

In his keynote about innovations at the Paris Opera Mr. Ajdari also mentions a new project which will incorporate virtual reality features to reach the audiences who cannot go to the theater for different reasons. I was not able to find any additional info on this project, but it means that also the Paris Opera will soon start a pilot project with virtual reality technologies.

Interestingly, some less internationally prominent and smaller theaters seem to be quicker in embracing virtual reality amidst this “perfect storm” for digitalization of the arts, like the German State Theater Augsburg in Bavaria which is offering some productions within virtual reality, sending the VR headsets all around Germany when a ticket is purchased online. There is one ballet program which can be ordered with a VR headset named SHIFTING_PERSPECTIVE. Read about my first experience with this contemporary ballet performance within virtual reality in this blog post.

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