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The Virtual Arena

The Virtual Arena: Immersing the Performing Arts Audience

The Virtual Arena steps inside the Barbican Theatre’s latest VR dance experience.

The application of XR into the attraction and amusement landscape is covered by industry specialist Kevin Williams in his latest Virtual Arena column. Reporting on the mixture of performance, music and theatre, within a collective immersive environment; seen with the Barbican Theatre’s VR dance experience – “Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li”.

Le Bal de Paris

We have recently covered the way that location-based entertainment XR technology, especially regarding free-roaming experiences being co-opted into the arts, (what some call “Artainment”). Previously with our reporting from the hyper-reality VR experience ‘Current, Rising’ as part of The Royal Opera House season. And then more recently our coverage from the AR ‘Lost Origin Experience’ in partnership with the Almeida Theater and Sky.

London once again played host to a ground-breaking experience, one which looks to be one of the largest “collective immersive experiences” deployed to date. Taking place at the famous Barbican Theatre in the capital, during a short window, the touring experience called Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li, is a fusion of hyper-reality, free-roaming VR, and live performance – that pulls the audience into the narrative.

Le Bal de Paris
Image credit: KWP

Audiences, in groups of 10, gather on the theatre’s main stage, which has been segmented into three unique VR free-roaming stages (accommodating up to 60-guests, along with performers). The audience dons full VR PC backpacks, and HTC Vive Pro headsets – along with unique arm and leg trackers. Once immersed, the guests are transported into a magical world of dance and romance, encouraged to take part in the performance, interacting with actual characters represented by real motion-tracked performers. 

Le Bal de Paris
Image credit: KWP

The experience is the creation of Blanca Li and her company, the imagination and inspiration of the famous choreographer, dancer, and actor, is the latest musical installation in partnership with her dance company, and the Barbican theatre. The amazing dance performances, and characterization represented by the cast and crew in the experience, and a host of recorded motion-capture performances.  

Blanca has worked with developer Backlight VR studios, a co-producing partner to create what has been called an immersive hybrid art form. Backlight, are specialists in VR, having developed numerous Location-based Entertainment (LBE) experiences – as covered in our AREA15 report and their first ‘OZ Experience’ installation – along with creating specialised animated films with extensive producer credits. The company has applied all its VR free-roaming effects skills to the creation of what is one of the largest “collective immersive experiences”. Using Unreal Engine to create beautiful and engaging worlds.  

Image credit: Backlight

This experience comprises a unique element of incorporating virtual fashion. The guest starts the experience with a selection of stylish fashions to clothe their character. These costumes are provided by the luxury fashion house CHANEL – a partner of the experience, creating an amazing atmosphere to the event, guest choosing their stylish dress, suits, and unique animal masks – able to admire themselves via mirrors in the virtual changing room. An example of placing the physical into the digital space, and the creation of virtual costumes and clothing. Long before this is achievable in the metaverse.

Image credit: Backlight

Along with the costumes, the lavish backdrops that the audience is placed within during the 60-minute experience, offer a perception of limitless movement through plane-shifting tricks. Transported from setting to setting via a magical walkway, speedboat, and train carriage, all while still retained in the stage space. Music and dance are at the heart of this work, and the audience is drawn into the experience, even encouraged to dance with the performers in the virtual world. The performers’ movements are able to be incorporated into the experience through Backlight’s full-body awareness platform.

FLUX Laboratory
Image credit: FLUX Laboratory

At the end of the VR element of “Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li” – the audience was totally enthralled in the experience, many of those lucky enough to try this experience, ringing its praises as being one of the most imaginative performance art forms, let alone their best VR experience. The “Immersive Theatre” performances have been sold out during the short run, though is hoped to be the start of a renaissance for this kind of application.

Speaking of new openings, one of the largest “collective immersive experiences” also recently opened in Tacoma, Washington – called THE INFINITE, described as an “Out-of-this-World” VR experience. A vast 12,500-sq.,-ft., space transformed into a giant free-roaming environment, for groups of from 10 to 29 users (accommodating a total of 150 visitors at one time), wearing Meta Quest 2 headsets, to traverse a virtual recreation of the International Space Station. This joint venture between PHI Studio and Felix & Paul Studios, created to reimagine the standards of LBE, developed in association with TIME Studios.

The Infinite
Image credit: The Infinite

Another touring experience, THE INFINITE, will be visiting the world’s major cities during the next few years, (we plan to report from it soon). And this is not the only VR experience that is scheduled to open. We will also be reporting on the latest immersive experience to take place in London. Offering not only a hyper-reality event but also a historical experience that could change the way that live performance and VR are combined in the future. Watch this space for our next feature.

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