The Immersive Experience: What It's Like to Perform in a Show Where the Audience Can Be Anywhere
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.
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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.
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."
Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Borolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. (Yaniv Schulman, courtesy O+M Co.)
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
Summer intensive auditions can be nerve-racking. A panel of directors is watching your every move, and you're not even sure if you can be seen among the hundreds of other dancers in the room. We asked five summer intensive directors for their input on how dancers can make a positive impression—and even be remembered next year.
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.
We always love a good halftime performance. And we LIVE for halftime performances involving talented kids. (Fingers and toes crossed that Justin Timberlake follows Missy Elliott's lead and invites some fabulous littles to share his Super Bowl stage.)
So obviously, our hearts completely melted for 5-year-old Tavaris Jones. Tavaris may have just started kindergarten, but during Monday night's game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, the Detroit native danced with the panache of a veteran pro at halftime.