Last week, I received a package in the mail. Among the contents: pieces of thick, copper-colored foil; vials of water, air and gold paint; a booklet with photos of gold-painted dancers amid giant, crumpled pieces of the same foil; and a Google Cardboard viewer to turn my smartphone into virtual-reality goggles.
This was all equipment for the “at-home experience” of “The Other Shore,” by the Seattle-based dance and visual art team Zoe Juniper (led by the choreographer Zoe Scofield and the visual artist Juniper Shuey).
The booklet turned out to be the essential item, for it contains QR codes that link to performance videos. On Tuesday night, after a Zoom presentation given by the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (which commissioned the project with Carolina Performing Arts and sent the boxes), some of the links became active, and some of “The Other Shore” could be explored. (For now, if you haven’t already purchased a box, you’ll have to settle for my report.)
Virtual-reality experiments are still rare in dance, and for me, parts of “The Other Shore” experience were excitingly novel. The work is divided into two sections — Books 1 and 2 — but all that is available so far are segments of Book 1. These are a series of 25-minute solos filmed with a 360-degree camera. Watching them in VR gives a new meaning to in-your-face dance.
The instructions recommend a swivel chair — a good idea, since your perspective is centered, and you often have to continue rotating to keep in view a dancer who circles around you. It really does feel as if you and the dancer were in the same room, almost touching. The intimacy is intense.
That room is a bit odd, though, strewn with giant pieces of the crumpled golden foil (a Zoe Juniper trademark). The three solos that have been released follow the same basic sequence. The dancer hatches from beneath the foil, arranges it, uses a bowl of water to get wet and then pulls a pot of golden paint from a hole in the floor and smears it all over his or her body.
As this structure is repeated, using the same music, each dancer is differentiated, undergoing a distinct transformation that is manifested physically. To further distinguish each performer, we are also given a separate audio track, in which the story of that dancer’s birth is recounted by members of his or her family.
There’s some tension between the ordinariness of these stories and the work’s mythical aspirations, between the mundane materials sent to viewers (to help make the virtual experience more tactile) and the numinous intent (the title, the mystery of birth, the suggestion of extracting the divine essence from the navel of the world).
So far, all the golden packaging promises more than it contains, though the technology definitely shows potential for ritual magic. When I tried watching without the VR goggles, I was much further from enchanted.
The preceding Zoom presentation of various clips and montages was flatter still, almost a disservice to the project. But it did give a glimpse of Book 2, a series of group pieces in which the viewer’s perspective is underneath the dance, lying on the floor, looking up. Even without VR goggles, the footage flashed some thrilling fun-house-mirror effects.
So there’s more to look forward to, as more videos are released in coming months. A live version will debut in Seattle next year, but Zoe Juniper has already shown that there are other shores of at-home dance experience worth exploring further.
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