FuturePlay, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh Festival Fringe; 20th August 2017
A year and a half ago I wrote an article querying an apparent lack of digital experiments in and around the circus field. Circus work requires much longer incubation periods than other performing arts, due to the need for continual training in physical technique additional to creation and rehearsal time, and because of the high costs – combined with low availability – of suitable spaces in which to make work. Emerging digital technologies may take even longer to get right, so combining the two forms is, necessarily, a slow-burn.
Virtual Reality technology, however, seems to have come on in leaps and bounds over the last decade. I’m not a gamer, which is where the biggest impact seems to be taking place, but even I have noticed the increasing availability of VR headsets and experiences in the public domain.
Flopping down onto a sofa towards the end of my Edinburgh Fringe stint this summer, I find myself flicking through a programme of events that hadn’t crossed my radar before: the #FuturePlayFest series of talks, events, gadgets and digital experiences presented by Riverside Studios in association with Assembly Festival. Cool. Interesting. Cirque Du Soleil. What? Brilliant! Now I have an excuse to go along and check it out!
And I’m very glad that I did. CDS have been working with fellow Montréal-ers Felix & Paul Studios for over three years, developing ways to capture the sense of watching a live spectacle through 3D, 360° cinematic experience headsets, and I was lucky enough to immerse myself into each of the first four of five current collaborations.
I begin with 13 minute-long Kà, thinking that my real-world visit to the show in Las Vegas last year would help inform my virtual experience. I’m placed on the technically marvellous floating ‘sandcliff deck’ stage of Mark Fisher inside the theatre of the MGM Grand hotel where the show is permanently based. This is a thrill in itself, setting up an anticipation for a terrifying tilting, turning ride that gave me vertigo even from my audience seat when I saw it live. First though, I am faced with the cast of the battle-driven show, and plunged into the middle of a martial arts fight. I’m not just a fly on the wall, however. These characters look at me, leer at me, threaten me or, later, smile encouragingly as I’m brought into the uphill flight from the marauding hordes.
These are recognisable scenes from the stage original, but reworked to place me at their centre, impressing with the intensity on the artists’ close-up filmed faces and the real connection I feel between us. The simulated eye-contact has my own facial muscles twitching in natural reaction to tiny nuances of expression. Later my reactions because further embodied, as I flinch and peer and cringe at the virtual objects that now surround me, or grip the table in front of me as if it is one of the stubby posts that will stop me falling from the vertiginous upright stage. At other times, accidentally tapping knees or feet against real world objects around me is slightly distracting, but I also value the option to grab the seat beneath me to remind me non-virtual gravity is still keeping me safe.
The acrobatic fight choreography is one of my least favourite circus-theatre formulae (regardless of how skilfully it’s done) but, even more easily than in the sit-in-your-seat theatre world, I am able to shift my viewpoint. I look instead out into the darkened seating array, to the biopunk towers that ring the rows, or to the mechanics of the stage behind and below me, the slowly driven death-wheels above my head. This is where the technology really comes into its own for me. This is not just a representation of the static audience experience like the great cinematic recordings of Digital Theatre‘s productions, but a whole new way of engaging with the performance environment. I can see that this kind of VR revelation may be a way of attracting new audiences into live performance too, grabbing the attention and shaking preconceived ideas that theatre is only for a certain kind of elite.
Kà‘s original director Robert Lepage isn’t credited on the VR experience, which has been directed by cinematographer François Blouin with Felix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael (the eponymous Felix & Paul). Blouin has worked with CDS since 2010, previously creating trailers for several of their shows, and began freelancing for Felix and Paul in 2016 with this project.
The first of the VR collaborations though, was Zarkana, released in September 2014, a year and a half before the show closed. The two minute sequence feels very much like a pilot compared with what was to follow, but is the closest I – and many others – can come to a show that no longer exists. The cast come towards me, in character, then join me to watch a short sequence of the Atherton Twins on their aerial straps. The archival implications for preserving the ephemeral theatrical event are clear, but this capturing and redistributing of a performance moment also raises questions in my mind about how artists’ fees might be managed if VR versions become more widely marketed as a way to consume performance. Those few minutes couldn’t exist without the time and resources that were committed to running the entire production.
Jean-Pascal Beaudoin created the surround-sound audio for Zarkana, which I listen to through headphones – even more personal than the speaker arrays in each seat of Kà‘s original MGM Grand theatre. In 2015 Beaudoin co-founded Headspace Studio, who have continued to collaborate as sound partner with the CDS/Felix & Paul team in the more recent projects.
Next in the running order comes Kurios, which opened live in 2014 with the VR release following 14 months later. This one really gets me jigging as the live band come to stand at my sides – double bassist Marc Sohier to my left and singer Eirini Tornesaki to my right – all of them performing their swinging jazz just for me, it would seem, as whomever I look at is glued equally to my face. Here the story is reframed so that I become the curiosity delivered inside a packing crate to this surreal world of steampunk, slightly scary, sideshow-type characters, who share their own oddity with me.
The most recent of the portfolio that I’m able to see here is Dreams Of O, released in January of this year (since then, Through The Masks Of Luzia has also been made available for free on Samsung GearVR, but #FuturePlayFest doesn’t have a copy here, released as it was only last month). The divergence of these last two titles from their progenitors seems indicative of deeper exploration into how the VR technology can allow an altered perspective on the live performance experience. Certainly in Dreams Of O, the original narrative is abandoned, giving us instead a sequence of 360° encounters and images. Much of O is performed in and around water, and here we are transported beneath the surface to watch synchronised swimmers, intricately made-up mermaids and plummeting divers forcefully disrupting the waters around us. Or we are semi-submerged, watching eerie women lurking just below the surface around us. Or we are up high in the air, as divers are launched towards us from a pair of Russian swings before turning beneath us to shoot down into the depths below.
The reality of these filmed performance moments is an added factor in my enjoyment. An animated avatar would not miss the full extension of their dive and slap the water a little too hard with their thighs. Seeing real people do extraordinary things is an important part of the circus experience, which Felix & Paul have managed to capture and spotlight so well in their CDS collaborations. As a life-long advocate of live performance, I am suddenly a convert to the potential of virtual reality to connect artists with new audiences in intimate and exciting ways.