The Road to Sensorium

If we haven’t met, I’m James Buckhouse, artist/impresario and founder/host of SENSORIUM at the San Francisco Ballet. My dream is to combine the visual and performing arts to create a total art. Learn more at

Programming Announced
SENSORIUM 2016 will feature two phenomenal ballets: Swimmer and Pas/Parts. Swimmer is choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, with a score by Shinji Eshima and songs by Tom Waits. It also features animated video projections by artist and filmmaker Kate Duhamel. Pas/Parts is choreographed by William Forsythe with music by Thom Willem. Both ballets stun and delight

High-Wire Act
We finally figured out a way to get the large video scultpure built for the lobby. Wait until you see the two 30-foot-long video curtains of crashing waves that people will pass through on their way into the theatre. They are made of “theatrical string” and work kind of like a beaded curtain from the 70s—so you can walk through them—but they are also a projection surface. You can become part of the art as you walk through and among the waves. The trickiest bit was figuring out how to engineer the tension wire to hold the whole thing up. Check out this mock-up for the vibe. I can’t wait to see 3000 people part the waves to experience SENSORIUM’s ballets.

Concept sketch for SENSORIUM

Bed Sheet Couture
Adding fashion to the mix of art, music and dance, this year we have a new experience called Bed Sheet Couture. I called up my favorite LA fashion designer, Lan Jaenicke, who is traveling with her team to create a mini-atelier in the lobby. Here’s a quick watercolor of her laughing as she takes the call with me. “You want me to do what?” “How many gowns in an hour?”

She will create instant couture gowns for six lucky members of our audience.

Why just check your coat? Instead check your whole outfit and Lan and her team will sew a made to measure, couture piece right on your body out of a bed sheet—while you wait.

The whole thing is inspired by a piece in her Fall collection called “PONCHO” which is a deceptively simple garment that can be worn in an infinite number of ways. Here’s a quick animated sketch I did of the original PONCHO so you can see it in action transforming as it’s worn different ways on the body.

Lan’s PONCHO (many looks, one piece)

We stopped off at Jessie Black, a Pacific Heights boutique, to pick up some designer sheets for raw material. Here’s a quick sketch of Lan in action as she rises to the challenge to create instant evening gowns out of sheets, a little ribbon, and her wits.

Her emphasis is on drape — creating that interstial space between the body and the garmet. I’m particularly excited to have her as a part of SENSORIUM as her concept of drape perfectly complements how William Forsythe constructs space with his dancers — he’s never just creating a line, he’s challenging the dancers to conceive of the space that surrounds their bodies as a volume, and then works with them to manipulate, translate, and investigate that space to reveal both an emotional truth and to extend the vocabulary of dance.

Getting Virtual
The video conference call started like any other, with faces popping up one by one, with each new visage both charming and intelligent, if a little hard to hear. But then something unexpected occurred. The final face came into view and the man on the other end of the camera wasn’t sitting at some desk somewhere, but was in the middle of a vast helicopter hanger. He began speaking about the VR experience their team will debut at this year’s SENSORIUM as if it was perfectly normal to take conference calls from a heliport. Unable to contain myself, I finally asked about it.

typical conference call at a heliport

Meet TELEPORT LABS. The story goes something like this: former ballet dancers (Oakland Ballet and Smuin Ballet) join forces and start the largest helicopter limo service ??!! in California only to branch out to add VR and Augmented Reality experiences to the mix after teaming up with animation and techincal leads from DreamWorks and LucasFilm.

I told them all that I’ll be VERY DISSAPPOINTED if they arrive at SENSORIUM any way other than by helicopter via a dangling rope ladder.

Here’s my quick sketch of how I hope they will arrive, even though they went on a bit about “airspace” and “illegal” and “maybe next time…”

The team members at Teleport are artists, dancers, technologists and entrepreneurs, but what’s the connection to SENSORIUM? Here’s the scoop. They will be presenting a new twist on VR—one that doesn’t require glasses or headgear and can be experienced as a group.

Scenes from Pas / Parts in rehearsal at SFBallet

Teleport brought in their motion capture equipment and digitized bits and pieces of Pas/Parts and Swimmer in the rehearsal studios at SFBallet. They then created a stylized rendering of the dancers that evokes both the history of art (line drawings, architectural renderings) as well as the history of dance (traditional ballet vocabulary expanded through William Forsythe’s and Yuri Possokhov’s contemporary choreography). The results invite people to see ballet from a new perspective. Speaking of the history of art…

L’orchestre de l’Opéra, 1869 Edgar Degas

True fact—the upright bass owned and played by Swimmer composer, Shinji Eshima, has a famous history. That exact bass was featured in an 1869 painting by Edgar Degas. We’ll have the bass and a reproduction of the painting on display at SENSORIUM and Shinji will be on hand to talk about his composition, his instrument, and composing for ballet (using everything including the kitchen sink).

Follow the Hidden Line
Peer into the eyes of an athlete or artist performing at her best and you can see into infinity—she’s entered a transcendent state where time slows, perceptions are sharpened and connections are clear. Artists know the feeling. Writers catch the drift. Dancers bring this daily to the stage—there’s a moment when you are locked-in and everything works.

Chasing this feeling while researching the two ballets that will be featured in the 2016 SENSORIUM show, I spent many happy hours rolling through tape of William Forsythe—both his work and his interviews.

Here are two different sketches of William Forsythe super-imposed on top of each other. Each drawing alone was fine, but together (one atop the other) finally revealed an image that seemed to move a little bit, almost re-animated in the tiny time gap between poses. You can almost sense he’s about to lift his gaze and speak. In this case he did, the next moment he said “I don’t need to see steps, I need you to shape time

Through the expert guidance of the team at SFBallet, especially Ricardo, I was able to pick up on a very specific trail in his work.

It was a scent of genius that I was only able to track late at night, once fully immersed in his work… Forsythe was giving me clues and leading me through the forest by presenting one piece of the puzzle after another. When it finally hit me it was astonishing—birthed within his work is a second work—a hidden line, that articulates shifting contrapuntal complements that articulate both the language of ballet and the human condition.

If this sounds obtuse—hang in there—let me try again… His work shows us unexpected relationships and these little jolts give us a sense of what it means to be human, to be alive, to experience time.

Chasing this scent is a wild feeling—like falling in love or catching a wave or being happily drunk on wisdom—why does it happen with his work and not always with others?

The reason? Forsythe is not entertaining us, but co-creating with us as we watch and listen. He’s using our minds as the finishing element to complete the piece. He’s counting on our memories, associations and imaginations as the final step. We are his unseen dancers. And our role is essential.

Unstack the nesting dolls of co-creation and you see a long list of collaborators: the choreographer is collaborating with the composer, the dancers, the musicians, and the designers, for sure—but the thrilling insight is that the artists are also collaborating with us—the audience.

The piece exists on stage, certainly, but the final artwork is constructed uniquely in the minds of each audience member—experienced anew by each person, to be co-constructed by the performers and the audience. We are both a witness to the art and it’s vessel / final state.

Storyboards for my curtain-opener for SENSORIUM, where I’ll do my best to perpare the audience for the phenomenal ballets that are about to happen.

Forsythe’s counterpoint on stage, such as pairing harsh sounds with gentle movements or slow arms with fast feet, are triggers to elicit additional connections, relationships, and associations in our minds as we watch and listen. Instead of presenting a single story, he presents triggers to elicit the potentially endless and specifically personal stories each of us carry within us.

The dancers experience this too—sometimes they create unsaid narratives to help inform the choices for subtle elasticity in their timing and reactions. Forsythe does this as well—as he describes the process of subdividing and subdividing each moment to unpack the possibilities all while encouraging the dancers to find a second hidden music in the actual music that’s played.

Listening carefully to the rehearsal footage, I could just make out the dirft of a little melody that Forsythe was humming, even during the most abstract moments in the music. He was finding an essential path—what musicians call the line—which is not quite a melody, but something more essential—and leading us through it.

Contrapuntal complements to the human condition

We see these hidden connecting lines everyday. Such as that moment when the sounds of heavy traffic and construction noise suddenly seem like a symphonic masterwork. Or when the wind shakes the branches of a tree and the visual results look like music you can almost hear. When pedestrians seem choreographed through the windshield of a cab, or when you accidently play two videos at the same time and discover a third voice that emerges from the blend.

Still from my curtain-raiser for SENSORIUM 2016

If there’s one piece I wish I could physically witness every few weeks, to re-callibrate my senses and to remind me of the hidden connections in my own humanity, it would be Pas / Parts. It’s strong medicine for the human condition.

Join us st SENSORIUM2016 for Pas Parts, Swimmer, instant couture, video sculptures, a dance party, a new twist on VR and more.

Yours in art,

James Buckhouse