Sunday, 13 April 2014

Paradise Lost

Good company
Yesterday, I was lucky enough to get the chance to see Paradise Lost, performed by the Basilique Dance Company, in SL. Whilst I'd seen some of Basilique's work at the MIAMAI BlackLabel fashion show in December, I hadn't seen anything like a full dance show, and I was really intrigued with the mechanics of the piece.

WARNING: this blog post contains spoilers. If you are going to see the show, I would strongly advise that you do not continue reading. It would be great if you'd come back later and let me know what you thought of it in the comments though :).

To continue:

I was rather pleasantly surprised. Using poses and animations embedded in our pew cushions and some controls similar to those of the Restrained Life Viewer, the audience were manipulated into interacting with the performance in a very immediate way and were, at a couple of points nearer the beginning of the performance, transformed from angels (a compulsory costume, sent to us before the show) into devils. For reasons I'm not wholly sure of, the company told us beforehand that this would happen, although knowing didn't take too much away from the spectacle of it actually happening. As devils, we danced and frolicked with the fallen Lucifer amongst the prim-fires of Hell. Watching your avatar get up and move and change into something else without your fingers anywhere near a keyboard or mouse creates a slightly bizarre out-of-virtual-body experience I hadn't even considered possible before.

Audience-devils and the prim-fires of Hell (the orange on the right there)
There was not an enormous cast, and a narrator with a beautiful reading voice told us pieces of the story at different intervals to help us to interpret the dance sequences and scenes. There was music to accompany the whole thing too - classical, and they seemed to repeat Lacrimosa a few times (unless I am mistaken, which is highly possible) which makes sense considering the subject matter of the show. 
The mechanics of the dance itself, I cannot describe because I don't know all the details. I don't know if the dancers make their own animations, or whether they scout pose and animations shops and create a collage of movements to make a bigger dance sequence. Does anybody reading this know? I'm not sure which of those methods would be more difficult. The amount of work undertaken to create a virtual show in which the cast dance for almost as hour must be insane.
The set was ingeniously set up so that alpha layers (think of them as invisibility cloaks) could be removed and replaced, effectively making whole vistas appear and disappear into thin air.  Little did we know that the pews (hidden in the above picture by an alpha) we had filed into at the start of the piece were hovering just a foot or so above a cloaked River Nile. 
The alphas made it quite difficult to move the camera around (imagine getting stuck pivoting a camera around an object you can't see - yup, it's as weird as it sounds) which I found I had to do on a number of occasions when the company's remote control of my camera stopped working. I think that small strangeness is worth it, though, for the spectacle of the scene revelation.

The Nile
There were some obvious issues with the performance. Despite the compulsory costuming and all of the tips Basilique gave us to improve our experience and decrease lag, the piece suffered immensely from lag. In places, it made the otherwise smooth dance moves seem stilted, and some of the more fantastical sets and costumes (like the prim fire in the picture further up, which seemed like an orange wall rather than flames for a little while) were slow to rez, leaving grey blocks in their place until they did. When there are this many avatars in one space with this much going on, however, lag is inevitable, and I think that each dance sequence lasted long enough for us to get the gist, even with lag interfering. There was always something to look at: the snowy winter world of Adam and Eve's exile and the wide River Nile were particularly impressive.

Adam and Eve are exiled. The audience, angels once more, look on
When you are performing in SL, you have the ability to bring in all these 'real' elements like grass and water and even weather systems of rain and snow, and it would be a shame not to take advantage of them. However, there's a reason we don't use actual grass and actual water and implement sprinkler systems in real life theatres, and that's because it's highly impractical for very little real gain. A theatre audience is usually willing to suspend disbelief and go with you if you tell them the bare space you are inhabiting is really a forest. This willful and happy desire to believe can be somewhat dampened, however, in the virtual world by lag, and thus I think there's a delicate balancing act in working out how much scenery is worth how much lag. Since lag in the first place is inevitable, the scenery provides a reinforcement, a back-up, to the stilted and sometimes slow-to-reveal-itself action, but it also works to increase that lag.
A question arose when Adam and Eve, enlightened with knowledge and feeling, for the first time, lust, decided to have sex. I expected the sex to be illustrated via a fiery, erotic dance, but in a surprise move Basilique decided to go for a more direct approach. What's more, they didn't use any vanilla missionary 'standard sex' or even especially loving and sensual kind of poses, but instead chose one that features Adam standing and sort of lifting Eve onto himself and bouncing her about like one of those little balls attached to a bat by a piece of elastic. Despite the seriousness of the moment (this is, after all, Adam and Eve sealing their fate as exiles from Eden and God's grace), I couldn't help but laugh, and I wonder why Basilique chose to make this departure from dance at that moment.

In terms of the story itself, Basilique introduced some really interesting aesthetics and ideas. God, appearing to watch Adam and Eve fall in love in the Garden of Eden, was green, and whilst this might seem to be a little pagan and hippie, it worked well with the earthy, natural feel of the Eden scene and the crowd of animals within it. Eden was organic, and that contrasted drastically with the dark rock red-and-black of Hell. The Archangel Michael looked seriously bad-ass, and wouldn't have been out of place if you'd popped him next to Ezio in Assassin's Creed.

The decision to make Lucifer female, and pointedly so, was also intriguing. It makes perfect sense, however, considering that the Blame For Everything Sinful falls to Eve, a woman, and that women are often considered in Biblical, mythological and historical contexts are being the origins or creatures of sin. That it is a woman who persuades Eve to eat the fruit, and a woman with whom God then wages war, opens up a whole can of gender worms. There were perhaps ways to explore this idea more, but they'd be dreams for another show, as I'm not sure they'd fit within this project as it is. 
I haven't read Paradise Lost, and I don't know whether any scripts exist for it and/or where Basilique drew the exact inspirations for the wording of their script. But the most interesting idea that arose from the way they told the story, for me, came with the description of Adam choosing to take a bite of the fruit. If I recall, the narrator told us that Adam, faced with Eve holding out to him the apple to bite, realised that Eve had betrayed God and knew she would be exiled. If Eve was exiled, Adam would be left alone in the Garden of Eden and, fearing loneliness, Adam took a bite of the apple too.
Eve offers Adam the apple
Whoa. Hold the phone. Back it up. In my interpretation of the narrator's words, Adam, surrounded by the love of God in the perfection of Eden, was lonely, and in the end chose companionship, love and sex with Eve over the safety, perfection and closeness of God. I do not claim to know whether Basilique intended for the audience to see it this way or not - this is strictly my understanding and imagination here. But I wonder how different the dance might be if Adam's loneliness, and Adam's decision to be with Eve rather than God were the focus of the story. Again, that's subject matter for a whole other show.

Witnessing this production was certainly an experience, and judging by the comments the audience were making as the dancers took their bows, it was enjoyed by the majority. With the limitations of SL and lag stacked against them, I applaud the ambition and the dedication of Basilique. I haven't heard of anyone else creating anything like this in SL, and a show of this magnitude is certainly an undertaking. To achieve so much and so well is fantastic. I think this is definitely a troupe to watch as they go forward and as SL and virtual technology gets cleverer and cleaner.

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