Imagine being on stage with dancers during a performance, experiencing the artform up close and personal.
Mixing optical science and dance, University of Arizona graduate student Gregory Taylor has created a project that is the first of its kind to grace the UA dance stage: a virtual reality ballet piece.
Taylor studies optical engineering and is an artist in residence for the UA School of Dance. He started his dance journey, as a 6-year-old, when he followed his brother’s footsteps.
“I did the Youth America Grand Prix, the biggest ballet competition, and I won first at regionals for classical and contemporary,” Taylor said. “Before, I was like, 'This is something to do for fun.' After that happened, I was like, 'I’m going to make this a job.'”
From doing that while he was in boarding school in South Carolina to getting a job with the UA School of Dance right after high school, Gregory quickly made a living out of dancing.
According to Taylor, his idea for a virtual reality ballet stemmed from his summer internship with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., the same company that helped build the Hubble Space Telescope.
During his internship, Taylor said he worked on getting full-flight footage and put that into a headset. When that headset is put on, it would transport the person to space and back. Taylor then wanted to do the same with ballet, connecting his art and his studies together.
“It’s really to bring the dancers closer to the audience, because when you wear [the headset], you feel like you’re completely face to face,” Taylor said. “It’s like way closer than even the live performance experience.”
The performance will not actually be a live performance, but audience members will step into a side room known as the “green room,” put on a headset and then watch the ballet take place in front of their eyes as if it was live.
“It’s not flashy. It’s very much what you would expect from the high art experience,” Taylor said. “Long, drawn out, calm, time to pay attention to things, notice beauty.”
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Taylor said to make this all into a reality and not just virtual, he auditioned and picked 10 dancers for his piece.
“The ballet is cut up into sections … Part of it is [filmed] on stage, the movement is very austere, very cut and structured, everything is what it is,” Taylor said. “The middle section is all filmed out in Yuma.”
According to Taylor, he took the dancers out to the Yuma desert in the sand dunes, doing 360-degree video shots of the dancers and their movement in order to create the perfect VR ballet experience that he wanted for the audience.
Reginamarie James, a junior UA dance major, is one of the dancers that participated in the project.
“I thought it was such a cool way of showcasing the art of dance to the public, and I thought it was really awesome that [Taylor] was going to merge the art of dance with the sciences,” James said. “[Taylor] is very intelligent. He really knew what he wanted and the fact that he knew what he wanted from us.”
Another cast member in the piece is UA freshman dance major Isabel Morales. According to her, she thought the combination of ballet and VR was unique in a special way.
“VR is relatively a new video game device idea and concept,” Morales said. “Something new as VR and then dance together, I haven’t seen anything like that.”
Taylor said he is very proud of the project and all of the dancers’ hard work to the piece's fruition. According to him, they have given him exactly what he was looking for when directing and choreographing.
“I’m so excited for everyone in Tucson and in the dance program to see it, because it’s going to be something so different than what anyone’s ever done,” James said. “I think [the audience] is going to feel like they’re dancing with us in a way.”
Taylor’s virtual reality ballet “In The Wings – Student Spotlight" will debut on Friday, Dec. 5, at the UA Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.
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