Second Life: a Puppet Play for the 21st Century


The Nut by Second Life Ballet

Monday night I got my first taste of Second Life in Brian McCormick’s Kinetic Cinema program at Collective:Unconscious. Second Life is a 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat. At the end of the evening Brian showed a real-time performance of “The Nut” by the Second Life Ballet done especially for the KC audience. I must admit, I came in to the evening with a lot of preconceptions about how I was going to interpret the SL performance. I had seen a couple clips of Second Life performances on Youtube, and I checked out Doug Fox’s blog postings on SL Ballet, so I had some idea of what it was about. As a dancer and filmmaker, it seemed like dance in Second life was still light years behind the fluidity and grace of “first life” dance whether on screen or stage. I also felt dubious about people who devote so much time and energy sitting at a computer living a virtual life, when the real thing seems like more than enough to deal with!

However, upon witnessing SL Ballet’s performance in real time, I was surprised and struck with admiration for what they were doing with their medium. The software for the program is definitely still a bit primitive. The movement was jerky with lots of dropped frames, and the music would sometimes skip or drop out, making it seem like the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. But this awkwardness actually made the piece very endearing and exciting to watch.  In many ways it was basically a 21st Century puppet show. The strings were invisible but the presence of the real hands operating the dancers were palpable.  The dancers moved like marionettes, sometimes flying across the stage or hovering for long moments in the air beating their legs in interminable changements. Like puppetry, the virtual bodies became substitutes for the real, and strange flights of fancy became totally believable and acceptable.

After the performance we had a chat with Inarra Saarinen, the artistic director and all the cast and crew of SL Ballet. We learned about the weeks of preparation it takes to create a ballet in Second life from programming the animation to practicing the moves with each other in real time. The cast members live all over the world, from Tokyo to Italy to Minnesota, and each member must commit to a regular rehearsal schedule of 4-6 hours per week. It became clear to me why ballet is a good choice of dance for Second Life. Inarra, as the choreographer, must program all the movements to be executed by key strokes. Ballet, with its codified technique, provides a set vocabulary of moves that she can create and store, in order to combine into different choreographies. Inarra said that over time she has accumulated over 300 animations for use in her dances. I’d be curious to learn how copyright and intellectual property works in Second Life. If someone else choreographs a dance using her animation for a passé or jeté, would they need to pay her? Maybe the exchange would be in Linden dollars (the SL currency that actually can translate into real money)!

Here’s a clip of SL Ballet’s “Olmannen” an original work in three acts.

I’m still a bit freaked out by the social complexities of Second Life. It’s the unseen person behind the avatar that kind of gives me the willies (no ballet pun intended!). Still, I’m very interested to see how dance will evolve in this medium. Brian mentioned the possibility of creating virtual theatres where people can go to see performances they missed in First Life. I was picturing a virtual Dance Theater Workshop with 3D avatars of Miguel Gutierrez and Juliette Mapp doing their thing on a make believe stage. I don’t think this could ever take the place of real performance, it’s just too different a medium, but there is certainly some potential. Like puppetry or cartoons, you could recreate historical events with a satirical or comedic effect. You could also bring historical figures together for fantastical meetings: what if Nijinksy could dance with Baryshnikov? or Isadora Duncan with Trisha Brown? Crazy fun could ensue.  

In fact, Brian pointed me to some clips by net artists Eva and Franco Mattes (aka that are reenactments in Second Life of famous performance art pieces. They call them Synthetic Performances, and they performed a couple of them for live audiences at Performa 07 (a performance art festival) here in New York this past fall. Here is a link to a clip in which people in a gallery have to pass through two naked people on either side of a doorway.

I’d be curious to hear from others who have been using this medium or have seen dance in Second Life. How do you feel about it? What kinds of artistic possibilities do you see in it?

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4 Responses to Second Life: a Puppet Play for the 21st Century

  1. Second Life Spoof Proves My Puppetry Theory

    Here’s a hilarious video of real people impersonating the way avatars move in Second Life. If I didn’t know they were mimicking Second Life, I would think they were acting like demented puppets or 80’s Atari characters.

  2. Brian McCormick says:

    That video had me laughing so hard, I literally slid out of my chair to the floor. hysterical! It’s true that a combination of lag due to the presence of many avatars and scripts in one region can create less than ideal situations. I attended a conference for non-profits Friday morning, and 82 people ‘showed up’ and there was only ‘space’ for 50. I quickly downloaded the paper and fled the scene to elude the seizure inducing a-v sputtering caused by slow processing…

    I’m glad that you could look at SLB for the potential it offers, and I thought your analysis and the digital puppetry metaphor was right on. It’s true that there are ‘more interesting’ performances being done in SL, but there are few companies or artists working with this kind of model, of regularly producing performances. Indeed, this non-profit space in SL- I could imagine DTW and others (especially like 3LD) having their own theaters there, where (1) video can be streamed (2) performances can be developed and performed (3) in the future, people can attend virtual performances in RL (like we did) and vice versa – so people in Japan could attend a performance of miguel gutierrez, e/.g by logging into SL and (ultimately) seeing a video stream of the live performance.

    why not just watch it at your computer alone – b/c being “in” the theater (virtual or otherwise) does change the xperience. Sure, there’s still a ways to go in terms of chips and processing, but we are getting closer with every upgrade.


    one of my two friends who attended the KC event in SL, in fact, was kicked out by one of the SLB ushers, b/c “it was invitation only” and he was also taking pictures, saying it was interfering with the special performance for the nyc audience. this was a real clash of worlds and played out in an interesting thread among me, Kam, and Josephine, my other Sl friend and newschool colleauge, who also attended in SL, and was also treated brusquely.

    totally fascinating. We’ll need diplomats to mediate RL/SL grievances…of course there have already been legal issues and economic questions raised by this technology, not to mention the social and cultural ones

  3. Anna Brady Nuse says:

    Thanks for the follow-up comments Brian! Just FYI for other readers, Brian was laughing at the SL spoof video I up-loaded in my subsequent post:

    The legal and social disputes that can arise in SL are very real. A police in Belgium recently apprehended man who “virtually raped” someone in Second Life.

    It’s fascinating where second life crosses over into the real world.

  4. Hi All,

    Brian was just interviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa about his Kinetic Cinema program and dance in Second Life. Check it out here:

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