“HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality” redefines theatergoing on every level

VR and immersive theater have a lot in common. Both offer temporary reprieves from reality, but more than traditional film and stage, the developing art forms have audiences more aware of the present. Bodies are interacting and engaging with scripted spaces, whether with actors or in a program requiring special lenses. Combining the ideas of VR and immersive theater, HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality is a VR/AR project that transforms the stage into a character and uses dance as a language to breathe life into David Bowie’s eponymous song. Just as the artist broke barriers in music, the multidimensional version of HEROES explores the idea of space and scale within a restored 1920s-era silent-film theater in Los Angeles.

The Theatre at the Ace Hotel

Melissa Painter is creative director and innovation strategist at MAP Design Lab. Inspired by the historic architecture of the Theatre at the Ace, she put together a hybrid VR/AR/dance/theater duet with Helios Dance Theater, which is designed to be experienced with both Oculus Gear VR and AR via Microsoft’s HoloLens, instead of inside an actual theater. “I wanted to explore one duet, one song, one location with three different media and really do it almost as a test to try to imagine, given the current state of all these technologies today, what could we do with each of those things,” Painter tells Creators.

Making of HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality premiered at Sundance at the film festival’s New Frontier Art exhibition. The experience begins in VR, with two dancers literally submerging themselves in a pool at the Ace Hotel, then falling below to the building’s magnificent stage and athletically engaging in a dance that disregards gendered notions of strength, leadership, and narrative.

HEROES was built with MPC VR and the Unity game engine. Besides a 360-degree camera, photogrammetry, and rapid avatar creation, it also employs comparatively traditional media such as 2D cameras, painting, animation, and dance. But in the end, it’s all about location, which just so happens to have incredibly ornate architecture and a deep sense of history, which means something in a town where beautiful buildings have been regularly struck down like movie sets.

“We chose the Theatre at Ace Hotel as the setting for our mixed reality experiment because we were inspired by its history in the evolution of cinema, and because we needed a building so beautiful that it was able to be a star in its own right,” states Painter. “We are working in these emergent media because we believe that they can and will change culture, the same way the birth of cinema did.”

Helios Dance Theater’s Chris Stanley and Melissa Sandvig in HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

Following the first part of HEROES in VR is the AR portion, which has participants following spritely dancers and manipulating them with gestures and verbal prompts. The swimming pool on the roof of the Ace Hotel then not only becomes the diving point of the whole narrative, but its silhouette turns into a motif and makes its way back into actual space thanks to a 3D printer, with the details of the pool decorating a pair of HoloLens glasses like a fancy red tiara.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the endeavor has been scaling the experience for a wider audience: a challenge that’s the direct result of the project’s highly personal nature, if only because it’s in VR/AR and requires special equipment. For a more traditional theater experience, choreographer and artistic director of Helios Dance Theater, Laura Gorenstein Miller created Minor Obsessions, a suite of 10 duets and eight-piece finale, which is having its world premiere at — where else? — the Theatre at the Ace on March 5.

Making of HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

“I was inspired to create an evening of hyper romantic, fiercely physical duets,” Miller says. “In these crazy political times, I felt the need to show examples of love crossing all boundaries. In my choreography my women lift my men, men are lifting men and women together as well. The physicality of the work embraces the entire LGBTQ spectrum. My passion is to create choreography where the dancers are impossibly entangled yet bursting with energy and sensuality.”

Whether in real life or mixed reality, HEROES (and Minor Obsessions) proves that fundamental art forms like dance won’t go away with the advent of VR. Emerging platforms just give experiential control back to audiences, encouraging individual interaction as well as collective ones, all while exploring mixed reality’s uncharted terrain and redefining the art of storytelling.

Helios Dance Theater’s Chris Stanley and Melissa Sandvig in HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

Helios Dance Theater’s Chris Stanley and Princess Mecca Romero in HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

Watching HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

Watching HEROES: A Duet in Mixed Reality

Minor Obsessions premieres at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles for one night only on Sunday March 5. Watch a 360-degree video of the first part of HEROES on Facebook here.

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