The Making of a Ballet in Virtual Space

Inarra Saarinen

Creating Ballet Pixelle's original ballets is truly an amazing experience. They take several months from concept to completion. Besides the normal artistic challenges there are also technical and logistic challenges.?I created Ballet Pixelle with a crazy idea, some fabulously talented and committed people, and a ton of perseverance.


Artistically, the stories are written and become more clarified over time and rehearsals. Part of the beauty of writing the story specifically for Ballet Pixelle is that I am able to utilize the unique aspects of Second Life to bring the story to life. For example, In Olmanen, I saw dragon-like creatures appearing in the air, a couple in love spiraling down and up, sprites flying, and a beautiful woman transforming instantly into an old woman while the man transformed into one of the evil beings. In Windows, I saw silhouetted women dancing in the air, teenagers doing slow aerial flips, and a dream sequence where a man transforms to his younger self and the lovers spiral up together.


I find some wonderful collaborators in places all around the world, and we work live, something that would be very difficult in First Life. Our composer for our first ballet lives in London, our architect is in Australia, and our dancers and crew are from Austria, Denmark, East Coast of the U.S., England, Hawai`i, mid-West U.S., Netherlands, Portugal, and the West Coast of the U.S. It was a challenge to find a costume designer, lighting designer, set designer, videographer, and stage manage at first. The dancers are also cross-trained in some crew positions. We also originally had a challenge keeping dancers because of First Life changes and commitments. Now, however, the understanding of the commitment is a part of the audition process. These dancers put in very significant dedication and work to Ballet Pixelle and are a large part of why the ballet works. The entire cast and crew are volunteers that are interested in pursuing artistic movement and dance in Second Life.


Technically, I used Avimator, Qavimator, Poser and others to create the animations. I began with some ballet animations and created quite a number over the course of the choreography. All in all, I now have approximately 250 original animations. The main difference between dance animations at clubs in Second Life and these ballet animations is that 100% of the ballet animations do not loop and run under the precise control (SL willing) of the dancer. The animations are put into gestures, which I make akin to musical phrases in ballet. This way the choreographer and dancers and composer are able to work in a normal First Life style. The gestures also allow very precise timing between animations (in tenth of seconds but, alas, not counting lag) and compound animations. That is, in a gesture if you do not add a "wait" step the two animations happen at the same time. The dancers map the gestures to function keys or use chat "/gesture_name" to activate the phrase. It is up to the dancers to rehearse and time the execution of each gesture in order. During these times, I have tried working with both off-the-shelf and custom HUDs, but neither of them gave me all of the functionality that I needed. There were added lags in a HUD, for example, even though having buttons might have been convenient for the dancers.


Once the story begins to fall in place, I am able to animate most of my visions. What a wonderful release to be able to choreograph with dancers who have grand jete's that are full splits in the air, perfect "turn-out", and timely forever turns! This allows me to really produce many of the effects I want. Of course, these are real dancers, so there are always the "I thought said you wanted me to come downstage?" kind ofdiscussions. The dancers are not scripted! Rehearsals take place in almost exactly the same way a First Life rehearsal does -- except for the "I need you to hover up a bit" kind of directions.


Our home theatre in Quat. The theatre originally held 20, then 30, then 40 avatars, and then we could no longer hold our audience. So we investigated and researched plans for a more efficient, reduced lag, larger theatre. Eventually, we built a similar theatre to our home theatre hosted by IBM in the IBM sims . This theatre stretches across two sims -- the audience of 80 is in one and the stage and dancers are in another. Besides reducing lag, and allowing for a larger audience, security is enabled by simply putting different access restrictions on the stage sim. Today we are back at our original location in Quat, but with a redesigned, state of the art theater!


Because of the lack of a costume designer, we spend a significant amount of time finding and assembling off-the-rack costumes and AVs that fulfill the artistic vision, and then spend some time negotiating to make them "transfer ok". In this way, costumes can go out to the dancers and then are transferred back into Ballet Pixelle wardrobe department. Our Wardrobe Department is an automated system that allows the dancers to "check out" costumes while letting everyone know who has what. Designers who contribute costumes are acknowledged in the playbill.


In closing, this is an exhilarating experience with an absolutely wonderful committed artistic team. We are learning an amazing amount of what Second Life can and cannot do, and what virtual and physical dance is and how it interconnects. We look forward to more exploration in the future. If you have the chance to sit it out or dance, dance!?