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 http://0100101110101101.org/) 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?