Digital technology follows a long line of innovations that have brought citizens of the world closer together. In performance, the desire to unite players in different global arenas and time zones onstage is a fairly new one but it’s attracted creative minds as diverse as the Foo Fighters, Damian Hirst and Jérôme Bel. Connection across distance is also a key motivation behind Stream, a ballet magically performed in real time by a blended cast of students from Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS) dancing in Toronto and their counterparts from the Dutch National Ballet Academy dancing in Amsterdam. Stream was one of the many much-anticipated public presentations at NBS’s Assemblée Internationale (AI13) in May.
Modelled on the inaugural AI in 2009 (which was conceived as a celebration for NBS’s fiftieth birthday), AI13 served as a gathering of students and faculty from leading international ballet schools at a week-long summit in Toronto. With special classes and a program of blended international visitor and home school casts performing ballet classics alongside new work by student choreographers, AI is designed to strengthen bonds within the professional ballet community as well as educating and, this year particularly, sparking creative innovation.
Among the new features highlighting technology at AI13 was The Creative Challenge, a mini-conference in which students committed to creating new work with collaborators from other disciplines to be presented in a non-traditional performance venue sometime in 2014. Led by former ballerina Deborah Bull (creative director of the Royal Opera House) with input by choreographer Wayne McGregor, the closing day sessions were closed to the public (unlike many AI13 events).
But an even bigger innovation (and the one that must have felt like the bigger risk) was the live streaming project that yielded Stream.
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The idea may be simple but the execution was extremely complicated. According to Shaun Amyot, a choreographer and teacher at the school who initiated the project, “Even the people who manufactured this receive-and-send technology that we’re using didn’t think we’d be able to achieve what we wanted to do.” NBS partnered with the Global Campus Network belonging to their neighbour, Ryerson University, as well the Montréal tech company Haivision, to create an almost instantaneous cross-Atlantic projection-delivery system to transmit performances of both set choreography and improvisation from performers in the Betty Oliphant Theatre in Toronto and their colleagues in a black box studio in Amsterdam over the Internet.
Amyot and co-choreographer, the Amsterdam-based Michael Schumacher, gave careful consideration to the blocking of the piece, allowing for full-body and close-up projections of the Amsterdam dancers. These filled huge onstage screens around which the Toronto dancers moved in groups, duets and individually to the strains of Philip Glass’s String Quartet # 5 played by the Kronos Quartet (the music originated in Toronto, streaming back to Amsterdam so that everyone would be dancing to the same beat. Because of a micro-delay in the audio relay, the music was sent a fraction of a second earlier to the dancers in Amsterdam, manually manipulated by technicians Kevin MacLeod and his counterpart across the pond, Doug Benn.) The transparency of the screens allowed for some ingenious moments of interaction between both live bodies and projected bodies and previously recorded video of light playing on rushing or rippling water, the other “streams” referenced by the work’s title.
The piece began with a moment of honesty and real connection – recent graduates of NBS and long-time friends Kaitlin Sim in Toronto and Dasha Schwartz in Amsterdam address each other face to (screen) face. “Dasha, are you there?” asks Sim. And the pair exchange pleasantries and decide they are “ready as we’ll ever be” to begin the historic performance.
This inspired moment establishes the primacy of living connection and warmth over digital wizardry right off the top. However, much that follows is technologically breathtaking as the dancers alternately watch each other and dance together across oceans. At times I longed for a more streamlined production–there is a lot going on with a cast of thirty-three and multi-media elements. Some of the onscreen elements were so lovely– close-up shots of hands and faces–they didn’t really need groups of live bodies flanking the screens. Amyot mentioned to me the NBS directive to involve as many of the students visiting AI13 as possible and this prerequisite surely also had a lot to do with the abundance of joy and excitement in the auditorium at the evening’s conclusion. There will likely be more live streaming projects, Amyot has pointed out. So perhaps the large cast and resulting periodic chaotic quality will be modified in the future.
When I spoke with him long before the final presentations, Amyot was straightforward about what was underpinning the more than two years of effort by a team of experts in diverse fields. “There’s a lot of criticism of digital technology and social networking and how it’s de-personalizing us and keeping us attached to our devices – rather than humanly connected. This project is an example of how we can use the technology to really bring us together.” That’s not just in terms of production collaboration, Amyot told me at the time – personal connection is the whole point of the piece. “I want to achieve a real moment of real unison,” he said, “one in which every single person on the screens and on the stage are dancing together.”
Amyot and company were successful in this objective – the combined efforts of the students, the emotional resonance of having two best friends dance leading roles in their respective locations, the care with which the technical and choreographic elements were timed and blended – all of this contributed to a surprisingly moving performance in which the unison was completely palpable to all in attendance. Best of all, it wasn’t just a triumph of technology, it was a triumph of human bodies dancing together, a triumph of art.
For a limited time, you can watch Stream here. The live streaming performance is preceded by the student choreographies of Fast Forward Program. Stream begins at the 2:04 mark.