Palisadians Explore Virtual Reality

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer

Imagine standing center stage at the historic Ace Hotel’s theater, while a physically intimate dance progresses in front of you.

You can hear the dancers breathe and grunt, as they lift and intertwine with each other, and you can turn away from them or look up to see the empty theater they are performing in just for you. Then explore a different version of their performance where they shrink to small figures that you can move and shift as you walk through a room to explore their dance. 

Melissa Sandvig and Chris Stanley of the virtual and augmented reality project, “Heroes.” Photo: Jamie Caliri
Melissa Sandvig and Chris Stanley of the virtual and augmented reality project, “Heroes.”
Photo: Jamie Caliri

This intriguing combination of virtual reality, augmented reality and contemporary dance set to David Bowie’s song “Heroes” enticed the Sundance Film Festival to invite Palisadians Eric Marshall and Laura Gorenstein Miller and their director, Melissa Painter, to present the production at the festival’s New Frontier program last month.

Festival attendees experienced the show using both immersive VR goggles and holographic augmented reality headgear, which allows viewers to see and explore both the dance and the room simultaneously.

“It was great to be able to show the piece to so many people who are respected storytellers,” said Marshall, an immersive designer who produced the piece. “We got a lot of great positive reactions; it was very inspiring.”

On Sunday, March 5, the project took another step forward by offering a show at the Ace Hotel (in downtown Los Angeles) with an hour-long live dance production titled “Minor Obsessions,” which featured the “Heroes” dance, eight other duets, and a finale with all of the dancers. In addition, attendees experienced both the virtual reality and augmented reality “Heroes” segments at various stations. 

“I’ve always been kind of a Luddite, but this technology makes dance accessible to more people,” said choreographer Miller, whose work has premiered at numerous places ranging from UCLA’s Royce Hall to the Royal Opera House in London. These technologies “are a perfect format for dance, and I think that’s why we got the support and attention we did. Tech companies have these fabulous wares that they want to show to the world . . . Dance can really show off this emerging technology in such a visceral way. It’s a really great marriage.”

The intimacy and physicality of her choreography also adapt well to this technology. Miller, the artistic director of Helios Dance Theater, describes her work as “hyper-romantic, fiercely physical partnering.” Instead of relying on the traditional dance couple of the physical male lifting and twirling the female, Miller includes women who do lifts and offers varied genders in her love – exploring duets, including some that feature a man and a woman, but also intimate pairings of two men or two women. She also joins dancers of varied races to celebrate and explore many examples of love, and the effect is intensely intimate.

This type of choreography “is my favorite work to do,” said Miller, who moved to the Palisades in the 1990s. “It’s edge-of-your-seat. I think it’s incredibly exhilarating.”

Laura Gorenstein Miller and Eric Marshall. Photo: MAP Design Lab
Laura Gorenstein Miller and Eric Marshall.
Photo: MAP Design Lab

Miller, a Milwaukee native, first fell in love with dance when her mother took her to a ballet as a young girl. She requested dance lessons, and her mother enrolled her in creative movement, which allowed the then six-year-old to do improvisation immediately. It was a perfect fit for her as she always enjoyed both dancing and choreography.

Miller eventually moved to California to study dance at CalArts, where she also met her husband, Chris, now a director of DreamWorks animated movies like Puss and Boots, which Miller also worked on as a choreographer. The next project for the couple, who have two sons, Maxim, 15, and Hugo, 12, is Larrikins, an animated rock-and-roll musical set in the Australian Outback.

Painter, who used to be the executive director of Miller’s dance company, and Marshall also have an intriguing next project, but like the “Heroes” exploration, it includes a foray into new technology. The two, who co-own the company MAP Design Lab, specialize in using new technologies, and they were the ones who connected Miller’s work with the world of virtual and augmented reality.

“We thought it would be a really great platform to explore this new media,” Marshall said. In addition to doing the fully immersive VR segment, the idea was to take “the athleticism of dance and how it’s so based in body movement and pair it with the augmented reality headset and your ability to walk around.”

Unlike VR, in which your surroundings are fully replaced by what you see in the goggles, augmented reality inserts a 3-D holographic world into the room with you with which you can interact in both speech and movement.

Children who used the technology at Sundance became especially active, Marshall said.“They’re so open to experimenting with where they’re placing their body. They get down on the floor, and run at things. We are trying to invoke that freedom and liberty in everyone to move around and kind of play.”

This playful experimenting is also what creators like Marshall and Painter are doing with the content. For example, they are exploring the technology’s educational possibilities with illustrating physics or math concepts, which might otherwise be hard to imagine.

In addition, they are interested in helping people in cities use the technology as a bridge to the natural world. Marshall, a San Diego native who studied environmental economics at UC Berkeley before earning an master’s in fine arts at USC, said they are producing a phone app for Chicago residents that superimposes Zion National Park over the river running through the city to allow people to walk along the river and see connections to a vastly different environment.

“We don’t want these immersive technologies to tether people inside their own fantasy worlds,” said Marshall, who moved with his wife, writer Melanie Anderson-Marshall, to the Palisades four years ago. “We want to use them as a platform for greater awareness. We really believe they can be a positive force in the world.”

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