Real dancers in a virtual hell.
Real dancers in a virtual hell. Jonathan Hsu

This Sunday around 4:00 p.m. at Local Sightings, Stranger Geniuses Zoe | Juniper are presenting a 14-minute virtual reality version of their weird, gorgeous, apocalyptic Clear & Sweet. As I described the show when it made its west coast premiere last year, Clear & Sweet is a mix of haunting shape-note singing, atmospheric sludge metal, and Zoe Scofield's sharp and innovative choreography. Juniper Shuey uses his digital wizardry to conjure up intimate battles between heaven and hell, submission and domination, and the living and the dead. During the show on Sunday, the audience will get to see the dance from three different perspectives: 2-D, VR, and live. In another room, Scofield and Shuey will do a panel discussion related to VR in general, and VR in dance specifically.

Cool! But also, why? The theme of community and congregation—the very act of being an audience member—is a major element of the show, and a major part of dance in general. Presenting that experience in an isolating medium such as virtual reality strips a core experience from the show for the sake of experimenting with a new toy, and it's unclear why any artist would want to take that risk. So I called up Shuey to ask what was going through his head.

Shuey said he first started thinking about VR during a SIFFX festival he participated in with VR director Steven Schardt. "I was thinking a lot about what the point of VR was," Shuey said. "It’s so isolating for the audience, it’s like a solo show, but it also allows you to play with perspective."

Clear & Sweet is set up in the round, and so it doesn't tend to work as well in a proscenium stage setting. But the world of virtual reality is circular—the audience member is positioned in the middle of the world instead of on one side or the other of the world. Instead of controlling what they see, Shuey now has to think about controlling what is happening all around them.

For this production, Shuey decided to place the audience above the action of the dance. "You are literally over the world as opposed to participating in it, an overarching observer as opposed to a sideline participant," he said. "Since all the action is below you, you have to physically look down. Everyone is singing at you, you’re not singing. You're like like a saint or something."

The process of turning Clear & Sweet into a VR piece is making him think about dance in completely new ways. "Dance is made for a horizontal view, and not from this vertical view," he said. "So what happens when you try to shape choreography for that? We’re working on a new piece right now where people are lying on a floor and looking up. All these issues about what they’re seeing and when they move and why are suddenly becoming alive again."

He and Scofield are also currently experimenting with a piece that they will conceive of and create in VR, but then transfer to the stage.

While working on this project stoked Shuey's curiosity in the form, he says he maintains his suspicion of VR. "I still question it, still don’t quite believe it’s what people say it will be," he said. "It’s a different way to do storytelling, but as long as we don’t try to do what a dance performance or a movie does in VR, then we’re okay."

"It's sort of like tofu," he added. "Back when people were trying to use tofu as a meat substitute, it was terrible. It’s like no, actually, it’s tofu, it’s good by itself. Let tofu be tofu! Let VR be VR! It’s not going to be like real life—it’s different than that, so let’s address that."