Dancing in the Dark

VR allows performers to craft incredible new work, within limits.

IKinema’s MoCap system. An increasing number of VR worlds like High Fidelity also let you track your full body.

While our focus in these case studies is theatre, it’s worth noting that some of the most well-known immersive theatre experiences (e.g. Sleep No More, Then She Fell) are actually dance pieces. I was eager to find time to dip into this world to see the opportunities and limitations that may come with bringing dance into VR.

I find the core idea of dancing within VR is exciting. Dance uses interpretive movement to express a combination of emotion, story, and music. It builds a narrative without words. VR builds worlds without physical presence. Both dance and VR require a willingness on the part of the participants to set aside the rules of everyday communication to comprehend the experience. An audience for dance has already accepted an invitation outside of the literal world of here and now, making them more pliable to the suspended disbelief of VR.

Unfortunately, I can’t show you an example of what happened when we put a dancer into VR, as our avatar is a proprietary design we’re holding onto for the time being. For now I’m happy to share the thoughts of the dancer, a performer acquainted with VR but trying to perform and choreograph in High Fidelity’s platform for the very first time.

The Dancer’s Thoughts:

Part of the excitement of moving within a virtual world is the opportunity to work outside of physics. Dancers train to appear unbound by natural laws. They mold their bodies into entities of expression and movement by working incessantly to jump higher, reach farther, and spin faster. What dancers create is an illusion, a beautiful dream, of something more than real. They generate story across space. VR provides a remarkable between-worlds space that allows this conversation between performers and audience to take on a whole new visual and experiential spectrum without compromising the integrity of the art. You are still the dancer, you still perform, you still generate the movement, and what the audience sees is still bound to your body.

Dancing in VR gives you more than an avatar and a customizable setting. You are not bound by the same laws of physics the true world holds you to. In a generated world, the small victories over physics can be visually interpreted into something more. You can reach outward, and maybe the avatar’s arm can grow out, extend farther, to enhance that line. You can dance through the air, letting your motion carry you into the sky as the thrill of your endorphins tells you it should. What the audience sees can be the literal expression of your movements.

Dancing in the air was also a natural step in the setup I was given because the virtual environment I was in did not have boundaries that mirrored those of the physical space I inhabited. I found myself shunning areas where I had plenty of “real” space because of a wall in VR, while gravitating towards tight physical areas because they looked open in VR. Rather than fight my mind, I chose to dance in the air where I did not feel contained and could focus on movement within the space I could feel around me.

Of course there are limitations as well. The tether from the headset prohibits quick pirouettes and turns. It can also tangle your arms or legs, making larger motions, for example leaps and kicks, difficult and dangerous. Quick pirouettes and other fast movements also throw off the tracking, which can lead to disorientation and dizziness. The foot trackers, while easy to adjust to as a weight, are cumbersome if you wish to lower yourself to the floor at all. For example, kneeling is difficult, as are rolling, deep curtsies, lunges, and moves where the footwork is close together or originates in fifth position, such as a brisé or pas de chat.

I find it important to note, however, that these limitations do not devalue the experience for the dancer. They provide bounds to work around and generate creative solutions for. Obstacles are often assets — they force artists to really consider their creative decisions, and often lead to innovative approaches to common content. For example, a tried-and-true series of steps may be unsuited for the VR headset, and in working to maintain the same spirit of movement, the dancer or choreographer might find a new version of the pattern that better expresses the message they were hoping for.

Vive wand grip adjustment for better hand/arm alignment with avatar

One problem I encountered with the avatar I used was that the correlation between the hands and the Vive trackers was not spatially accurate. The avatar’s hands bent strangely at the wrist joint and the movements were out of sync with mine. For me, when dancing, hand movements are vitally important to both my expression and to the line of my body- I found it very distracting and frustrating to have my hands out of sync with my intentions to that extent. I eventually pinpointed it to the avatar reading the circle hub of the trackers as the center of the hand, which is several inches past the handle were I was holding them. This distance was enough to adversely affect the movement of the avatar hands. The quick fix was holding the trackers by the circle and ensuring that my thumbs were lined up properly to read wrist movements on the correct axis (e.g. If I moved my hand up and down, the avatar’s hand moved on the y-axis as well).

Working within the set space of the VR tether is also difficult. Many movements are completely eliminated as they take up too much space or risk cord entanglement. In-spot pirouettes and large leg movements such as kicks often resulted in being wrapped up in the tether cord. The exception was attitude positions, which were actually a fun work-around, because you could almost embrace the cord with your leg before releasing. It made for an amusingly meta acknowledgement of the tether as an obstacle.

Dancing in avatar form is both exciting and exacting. The avatar cannot do everything the dancer can, so you must adjust your movements and choreography to something the avatar can showcase. This eliminates a lot of intricate moves and quick or small motions. But working to create a spontaneous piece for the avatar to express is a fun challenge. The style of the avatar also impacts the choreography. A human-shaped avatar with full limbs is much more capable of expressing classical dance ideas than a cartoonish avatar with minimal or single- joint limbs. I think it would be fun to try an avatar that is just a light cloud, with heightened light clusters at the points where the trackers are. Some streaking with motion may also add an interesting affect that would be fun to play with movement-wise.

tl;dr — Virtual reality provides a myriad of opportunity for dance performance, but limitations on movement and certain positions need to be factored into the choreography.

For other discussions on these topics, see our other blog posts at Alive in Plasticland.