Chances are you’ve heard of Sleep No More, the blockbuster production loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But Sleep No More is more than just a performance: It takes place throughout a five-story building in NYC, with audience members exploring the space on their own terms. If you attend the show, you’re part of it—and that’s what sets immersive performances apart.
Immersive productions can be incredibly rewarding for dancers. But how do you prepare when all of your stage experience has probably been in a theater, with the audience planted firmly in their seats? Dance Spirit spoke to artistic directors and performers to find out what to expect when you book your first immersive gig.
Set Your Sites
Rachel I. Berman as Alice in Then She Fell. (Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy Third Rail Projects)
There’s a rich history of site-specific choreography—dance pieces made with a particular, non-theater space in mind—that set the stage for immersive shows. Iconic postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer made site-specific work to challenge people’s preconceived ideas about what dance could be, and helped inspire today’s immersive choreographers to let their imaginations run wild.
NYC–based choreographer Noémie Lafrance has created a number of experimental works based in audience participation. “I feel that a controlled environment (like a theater) isn’t reflective of how we live. It’s isolating. In the same way, I don’t want to isolate the audience from my work,” she says. One of her most notable works, Agora II, took place in an abandoned swimming pool in Brooklyn, NY, and featured dozens of dancers. Certain audience members received text message cues about when to join the performance. In this site-specifc and immersive work, Lafrance made sure the audience had opportunites to change the direction of the piece.
Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet member Vânia Doutel Vaz debuted in Sleep No More last summer. She has extensive experience performing in immersive theater, and she says that no two shows are the same.
Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Borolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. (Photo by Yaniv Schulman, courtesy O+M Co.)
For one memorable performance, Vaz danced in Laura Perez-Harris’ Belly of the Beast at Tomato House in Brooklyn. “Audience members crawled down a pitch-black velvet-lined maze and eventually fell into the ‘belly,’ where I and two other dancers performed,” Vaz says. “I think Laura was trying to get people way, way outside their comfort zones.”
“We call it ‘world-making,’ ” says Tom Pearson, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects and one of the creators behind immersive productions like The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell, which was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “The edges of the real world are invisible.”
It might seem pointless to prepare for a performance where anything can happen, but it’s not. Vaz suggests attending immersive performances whenever possible, to build your familiarity. She also credits Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique for teaching performers how to develop their awareness. “All your senses need to be enhanced,” she says. “You have to be able to see in 360 degrees.” And if you’re successful, she says, you’ll be so “in it” that you can practically predict audience members’ movements.
Vaz’s ultimate rule for performing in an immersive show? Don’t break character! She cautions that your worst-case scenario might happen, but you have to trust your fellow performers to help you—and that comes from rehearsing and performing together. “No matter what, never apologize for anything,” she says. “Everything that happens is supposed to. Don’t let the audience feel guilty, in your way, or uncomfortable. As a performer, you become the audience’s guiding eyes, so it’s all about being confident and secure in what you’re doing.”