Every crisis bears an opportunity, optimists say. In the case of State Theater Augsburg in Southern Germany, crazy times served rather as accelerators of future plans. It was already planning to invest in digitalization even before the crisis and was one of the first German theaters to appoint an inhouse Chief Digital Officer. Since Tina Lorenz joined the team in this role in October 2020, a larger number of high-quality virtual reality googles were purchased to expand the staging possibilities and to fill the void created during the closure of theaters throughout the ongoing pandemic. That is how the VR theater delivery service was born - unfortunately only accessible within German borders due to copyrights issues. Luckily, I have managed to travel to Munich lately and used the opportunity to acquire my first virtual reality experience - and that allied with my favorite form of performing arts which is ballet.
Buy your ticket for a VR ballet: Select, order, pay online
Select, order, pay 17,90 EUR for the performance ticket plus 11,20 for the delivery to your German address and back to the provider frontrow - a smooth procedure accessible for everyone with an internet connection and a credit card. However, after choosing the performance and the number of VR headsets, I was redirected to the calender where I could only choose a Thursday in two weeks as the earliest possible day of delivery. I doubled checked it now and it seems that the frontrow company only delivers on Thursdays from 8am to 6pm. That was the promise. In reality I received the VR ballet box on a day later after the confirmed date, on a Friday at noon. Being in a home office makes it easier to adjust to such unplanned delays of a delivery. I am not a big fan of online shopping because it creates a constraint for me as I prefer to receive the package myself and do not like the fact that it is left outside of my the apartment or sent to the next post office, which can be quite far and therefore is even more of a bummer.
Welcome to the brave new world of virtual reality: "Getting into the zone"
The virtual reality headset needs neither internet nor electricity, unless you leave it on for a longer time and need to use the charger included in the package. Your own computer can recover from all the streaming, while you “get into the zone” on a different level.
All you have to do is put on the bulky, already disinfected headset, plug your own headphones with a classical jack and take a seat on a swivel chair or stool with enough legroom or you can also remain upright. In any case, you will need to make sure that you are free to make a 360° turn. When you stay upright, be slow in your movements, because you can finish at the other end of a room without noticing it, which actually happened to me.
The virtual journey through the 360° perspective of Augsburg Theater’s stage starts with a surprisingly easy to use interface integrated in the VR headset, you only need to calibrate it and center your sight in order to navigate with a cursor by moving your head and directing your sight at the “play”, “stop” or “rewind” buttons. The rewind button allows to restart the entire performance several times, similar to a video on demand which can be passed over to several spectators, even within a limited time frame of two days. If the goal is to create the closest experience to a live performance possible, I think the following should be put into account: When you know that you can rewind, you automatically do not pay the same attention, as you do during a live performance or live streaming.
"shifting_perspective" is the first ballet production of the State Theater Augsburg available within newly created vr-theater@home repertoire. For this, the dancers have improvised very individual, sometimes bizarre, almost ghostly dance solos to electronic music by the British composer Robin Rimbaud. They turn to, walk and run towards the viewer again and again with intense gazes and hand movements. They appear unexpectedly and often very close in front of, behind or underneath the viewer. For unexperienced VR users as myself this abruptness can create a slight sensation of dizziness, so maybe it is indeed better to be seated on a swivel chair. I guess if it is a first time with VR googles, the body has to digest a completely new immersive media experience. The control panel appears when you look at the 3D cube in top left corner and you can pause the performance at any time, which is even recommended for those who experience virtual reality for the very first time.
The highlight of 40 minutes long "shifting_perspective" for a spectator consists in finding yourself floating about one meter above the floor in the center of the stage. By filming scenes several times and superimposing them, an immersive ballet performance was created: the spectator can literally be in the middle of the action, which cannot be reached during common theater visits when you seat in the auditorium. The VR experience starts with an impression of an empty stage - in front of you, in the darkness, you get a glimpse of the empty auditorium - at first you feel completely alone and exposed to the bright spotlights. Then, suddenly, the first dancer walks from the backdrop towards you, twisting and duplicating herself. While following the dancers appearing one after the other from different corners and angles, you will often have to make a 360° turn, otherwise you quickly loose them out of your sight.
At some point, it feels like becoming a part of the performance as well as a dialogue partner of the dancers, who come closer each time and seem to lure you into their rabbit hole of dance, so you can improvise with them. At the end, I really felt “lured into the action” and wanted to try out a contemporary ballet technique with Alleyne Dance which I found on the newly launched BalletActive platform of the English National Ballet. Find out more about my experience with this online dance class in my blog post STAYING FIT WITH DIGITAL BALLET.
New ways for ballet: Substitute or addition within a hybrid model incorporating digital repertoire?
After having plunged into a VR ballet performance, I concluded for myself that the VR theater can be a way to attract new audiences and nurture the connection between a part of existing audience, which is more or less digital native and can relate to such content in these unprecedented times. In the long run, I am sure that it cannot be a substitute for a real live experience in a theater which is composed of single fleeting moments and impressions which cannot be rewound, but shared within a unique collective art experience. But maybe as part of a special digital offering within a hybrid concept, why not? I believe that any artform has to reinvent itself to maintain its relevance in the rapidly changing modern society.
Which thoughts cross your mind on merging virtual reality with ballet and performing arts in general? Have you ever put a VR headset on? Share your experience in the comments below.