Birmingham Royal Ballet launches Virtual Stage

Jessica Harris goes along to watch.

There’s some exciting stuff going down at the Birmingham Royal Ballet with this week seeing the launch of its Virtual Stage. This is a tech-focused project, where terms such as “computer generated”, “augmented reality” and “3D mapping” flow freely. But more significant is the language used to describe the purpose of the project. For BRB, it is about extending the reach of its work to those who wouldn’t normally be able to see ballet, enabling people in hospitals or care homes to enjoy dance, and helping neuro-divergent people to engage.

The launch event on 30th August was an introduction to the pioneering projects which BRB has been undertaking with a range of partners with the express purpose of increasing accessibility to its world-class ballet.

And it was an opportunity to get an understanding of what all those tech-heavy terms mean and to see at first-hand what a collaboration between ballet and digital technologies might lead to in the future. The wearing of headsets was compulsory for engaging in most (although not quite all) of the projects!

In A Swan’s Story, virtual reality has been used so that, through computer-generation, scenes and objects from the ballet Swan Lake appear real. Headsets on, it feels as though you are sitting on stage amidst the dancers, dry ice and all. The environment moves on to backstage scenes where dancers speak about how they feel about their art and what they do as they prepare to go on stage. The beads, sequins and lace of their costumes are all too real and all too beautiful.

Elsewhere, Immersive Nutcracker uses interactive virtual reality techniques. This gives an opportunity to experience the set of The Nutcracker, to move virtually up close to costumes and props, to manipulate them, and to look at the detail. Another project immerses you in the rehearsal room, where you can see at close quarters the strength, coordination and self-discipline required of ballet dancers. And it takes you into the orchestra pit to understand something of how an orchestra contributes to what we see and hear in a theatre.

BRB2, BRB’s junior company of outstanding ballet graduates has worked with Holosphere on a motion capture project where sensors are fitted onto a dancer’s wrists to capture their movements onto a backdrop. The result is a new piece of dynamic dance content, depicted through graphics that are responsive to both dancer and graphic designer.

Virtual reality also allows you to see some of the work of Freefall Dance Company, BRB’s company for talented dancers with learning disabilities. The company is starting to create its own virtual reality content which is tailored towards neuro-divergent audiences.

From 4th-16th November, a Nutcracker-themed walking trail of augmented reality QR codes will be in place across Birmingham city centre. Members of the public will be able to scan a QR code which will bring The Nutcracker to life before their very eyes.

There’s a way to go on some aspects, including developing means of dissemination and in making those headsets lighter and more accessible. But already, plans are in place for a Swan Lake VR tour to schools across the West Midlands, for a VR documentary of The Nutcracker to be made available to specialist schools and through Birmingham Open Media’s network of neuro-divergent programmes, and for a Freefall VR to be ‘shown’ at a gala event to mark 21 years of Freefall Dance Company. This is cutting-edge stuff and offers a huge promise for extending engagement in ballet by many more people in the future.

Tom Rogers, Creative Digital Producer at Birmingham Royal Ballet, is leading on the Virtual Stage, in collaboration with Canon and RiVR, and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Digital Accelerator Programme.

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Pics – Canon/BRB/Clive Booth.