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It’s not as if the idea of putting dance on screen was a new thing; it’s been happening for decades, it’s just always been seen as a bit of a poor relation. But that was already changing. The best things I saw in the last year were made pre-pandemic: Wilkie Branson’s intricate animation TOM; dancer-turned-director Tommy Pascal’s films with Alexander Ekman and Royal Swedish Ballet; and not long before that, Michael Nunn and William Trevitt’s brilliant film of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, shot on location.
There are plenty of people rethinking the parameters of digital dance. Some viewers complain that watching on screen takes away your autonomy to look where you want on stage, so Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s new BMC Stream allows you to switch between shots, including cameras in the wings and backstage. Clémence Debaig attempted to close the gap between distant performers with wearable technology in Remote Intimacy, and Joy Alpuerto Ritter’s rOOms involved the audience in Zoom polls, the questions going from, “What dress should Joy wear?” to “Are you feeling worried about the future” in the space of 20 minutes. Alexander Whitley got rid of the dancers altogether in his Digital Body project, where he shared motion-capture data of himself dancing, which any digital artist could then use as the basis for a new creation.
Tech in dance was on the rise long before Covid, with artists talking about VR and AR and AI (even if they haven’t worked out how to use them yet), and undoubtedly that’s going to continue. But it seems likely that digital dance, in all its forms, will retain a more prominent position even when theatres reopen. When dance companies have been reaching viewers all over the world who wouldn’t normally see their shows, they’d be silly to stop (though the question of whether you can really make any money out of online streams is still a moot one). The accessibility of the internet is great for an art form that still has trouble shedding its reputation for elitism and abstruseness.
Related: Hottest front-room seats: the best theatre and dance to watch online
Dance doesn’t translate to the screen as easily as theatre does. It lives in 3D space, it’s fuelled by exchanges of physical energy; you can’t just sit someone on a sofa and give them a lengthy monologue (well, you could do a dance version of that, but it’s somewhat restrictive – feel free to prove me wrong, choreographers out there). And there are tricky issues such as music rights that can be prohibitive.
Ballet Dancer There are so many people out there and say watch me poster
You’ll never replace the live experience, but you can add something extra to it. Performance streams need to come with great direction (nobody wants to watch one wide-shot from the back of the auditorium, or editing that’s so choppy you can’t focus on the dance), and with wraparound content: interviews, histories, ways into the work. But mainly, artists and directors need to devise dance directly for film, for big screens and for phones, things you couldn’t do on stage. That’s not news – plenty of people are already doing it, but one legacy of this year may be that audiences are finally much more enthusiastic about watching it.