Holding close the tiny dancers: Atlantic Ballet goes 3D
Posted on May 04, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
The Atlantic Ballet Atlantique Canada (formerly the Atlantic Ballet Theatre of Canada) is readying for an event at the Capitol Theatre in Moncton to celebrate 20 years of performances. The landmark night will include dance, stories and music from singer-songwriter Jeremy Dutcher. It will also offer an early look at the ballet’s developing, digital capabilities.
Atlantic Ballet co-founder and CEO Susan Chalmers-Gauvin said pandemic restrictions prompted a search for new ways of collaborating. The company started on “CoLABendirect” and was successful in landing $500,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts digital to develop an online collaboration tool.
“It’s something like Zoom… this is before everybody was using Zoom, except there’s cameras and audio and you can interact. You can take control of the camera in another studio and interact with the dancers and the choreographer in a more meaningful way. It allows you to feel like you’re kind of working in the same studio,” she explained, in a recent interview with Atlantic Business Magazine.
With this success in hand, the company worked with the co-founder of Fredericton-based company Kognitiv Spark, Ryan Groom and Csaba Domokos of 3sixty live to further expand their digital repertoire. From there, new inspiration was found in Kognitiv Spark’s RemoteSpark software. Using the Microsoft HoloLens, the platform allowed industrial workers to access 3D renderings, detailed information and specialized expertise in the field, to be able to better troubleshoot onsite and address issues without delay. The workers can see even life-size images of whatever they might be working on, side-by-side with blueprints and renderings. They can communicate with others while seeing the images and also interact with the images. The Atlantic Ballet leadership wondered if the same concept could be applied to dancers and choreography.
The idea was fairly straightforward. “If I could email you a choreography… I put on my glasses, you put on your glasses, and we work on the choreography together. And you can make the dancers small and sit them on a table or you can make them life size and interact with them,” Chalmers-Gauvin said. From there, it was all about whether or not the idea could be brought to life.
The company submitted another application to the Canada Council. A jury of professionals in information technology and the arts signed off support for another $500,000 contribution.
It was needed since the project was more complex, touching on several different areas: immersive technology, motion capture and facilitating online collaboration. There is a research component and the ballet company connected with Scott Bateman, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of New Brunswick’s (UNB) Faculty of Computer Science. Discussion of the practical component, how to get the program coded and off the page, came to fellow UNB instructor and experienced instructor of game studies, digital design and 3D production Jeff Mundee.
Mundee can be a hard man to pin down, running between instructional sessions and meetings for his companies, particularly Spandrel Interactive, tackling unique and diverse projects. Reached by phone, he said Spandrel is not a unicorn start-up with a fixed group of developers but instead an umbrella he uses when tackling curious ideas and bringing them to people who may be willing to join him in taking them on as a project. Contributors often take on the work atop other jobs, bringing what might otherwise be free time to the effort. Mundee uses the connections he’s developed over time to find the right people to do each project well. He already had more than a few irons in the fire as a facilitator when approached by the ballet, but signed on to help anyway.
“It’s really good technology, it’s a really good idea. The application serves socially and for the arts. It’s just a really good project,” he said.
He uses terms like “synchronous and asynchronous telepresence” but essentially, he explained, imagine walking into a studio with a backpack, hauling out a hands-free HoloLens, a handful of sensors and a laptop. You can plunk down the sensors wherever they can see each other, pop on the headwear, then see holograms side-by-side with dancers in the room. The hologram images can be pre-recorded or live. A choreographer will be able to collaborate in real time with dancers or another choreographer. Similarly, a director might fine tune a dancer’s movements or a sequence of movements against a hologram ideal. Images of dancers could be shared between choreographers in live-action notes.
The software project is still in its early months. The work is expected to continue for another year and a half at least before becoming a truly workable product. On the technical side, the people involved are conscious they are active in an area where tech giants are dumping money and the tech is rapidly evolving, Mundee said. It means, for instance, closely following the planned launches of related hardware within the project’s timeframe as their software develops. “We don’t get too far ahead of that so we can make sure we can be on the cutting edge,” he said.
Chalmers-Gauvin said there are some hard and fast benefits in the direction where the ballet and dance world is moving. For one, collaborations between choreographers come with costs that could be slashed with the tech in regular use. It means saving on flights, hotel stays, per diems. And that’s all the more important for small and medium-size companies.
“The majority of our dance community is not big companies … so for that particular, for our industry this would be a very valuable tool,” she said, expecting the work will be ongoing from here to improve collaborative technology that is expected to be a part of ballet’s future.
20 years of milestones
The tech is still just a small piece of the 20th anniversary event for Atlantic Ballet Atlantique Canada being held on May 11. The company is intentionally matching the event date and location to an inaugural performance from 2002. Chalmers-Gauvin said tickets are selling well and it’s exciting to come together again in celebration of another milestone.
Twenty years ago, she was a sociologist working as a policy consultant with Indigenous communities across Atlantic Canada while fellow co-founder and choreographer Igor Dobrovolskiy had not long before immigrated to Canada from Ukraine. They got to talking over coffee and decided to start the Atlantic Ballet. It was June 2001, she easily recalls, and they opened a P.O. Box the same day as their meeting to get the ball rolling.
They managed to get together early finances, a board, a studio and audition for dancers. It was a bit of a surprise for the co-founders, but few Canadians applied that first year, so they quickly changed gears. “We ended up in that first year bringing dancers from Moldova and Belarus and Ukraine and Australia and bringing them to New Brunswick,” she recalls.
It was some long days and paperwork, but the company would leverage this early experience and outreach in the dance world and international connections. While the original thought was the company would be forced to tour just the area of Atlantic Canada for the first few years before finances would allow otherwise, it had tour dates across Canada by 2003. And by 2006, the Atlantic Ballet was touring Europe.
“Those were wonderful milestones,” Chalmers-Gauvin said, explaining there was a distinct pride of place along the way, having more and more opportunity over time to support local talent but also to have dancers from many countries work and develop in New Brunswick.
“If you ask me why I continue, a lot of it has to do with the calibre of Igor(’s creative work) and the dancers. … These dancers could be dancing in New York, they could be dancing in Paris, some of them have come from those cities and they’ve chosen to be here in New Brunswick,” she said.
Creatively, over two decades, the company has moved from being relatively unknown to premiering lauded performance pieces. Chalmers-Gauvin said a highlight for her was Ghosts of Violence. Dobrovolskiy was asked if he would create a ballet to honour women in the province who were murdered at hands of their partners. It wasn’t typical ballet subject matter, she thought, wondering if he would even agree to take on the task. But he did, working with Canadian playwright, actor and director Sharon Pollock, who had not at this point received her Officer of the Order of Canada designation but was well known for tackling difficult subject matter.
Ghosts of Violence spent two years in development. When it was first presented at Canada’s National Arts Centre in February 2011, the audience included groups of survivors who had come to the theatre from local shelters. And in a talk back session at the end of the evening, multiple women stood and shared their experience. And yet, that one night on its own isn’t what made the piece so memorable. “That piece went to 44 communities across Canada and every single performance, women stood at the end and during the talk back told us their stories and how much the ballet meant to them in giving the freedom to talk,” Chalmers-Gauvin said. “At that juncture we could really see the social impact that ballet art can have and we made a commitment that we would do other pieces in the future on subjects that matter to our community.”
Another standout example came in 2018 with Alien, a ballet based on the immigration journey and imbued with Dobrovolskiy’s own experience of immigrating to Canada from Ukraine in 2000. The piece similarly received positive feedback and particularly newcomers to Canada who could deeply relate to what was presented on stage.
It’s worth noting 20% of the 20th anniversary event ticket sales will be given to locally driven Ukrainian relief efforts.
The company business
Maintaining a ballet company requires more than creativity and artistic passion. There are also very practical challenges and constraints. Building the Atlantic Ballet Atlantique Canada hasn’t been a carefree enterprise.
“Building any business, let alone a ballet company, from the ground up is an enormous undertaking and you really have to be prepared to live in a world of risk. Year by year. And have a certain level of comfort with that. I remember in the early days of the company, the administrator of the National Ballet said running a ballet company is like walking on the edge of a knife every day. So there is that and I think it’s true not just for the ballet, it’s for arts organizations in general,” Chalmers-Gauvin said.
She said long-term corporate partnerships have been vital for the ballet. In unusually long commitments, Grant Thornton, Scotiabank and the Lounsbury Group of Companies have been contributing to the ballet company’s work since its start. Chalmers-Gauvin said the support has been vitally important to the 20-year arts sector success story. And all three supporters will be recognized at the anniversary event.
Sustaining funding, sponsorships, monthly revenue… none of it can never be ignored. But Chalmers-Gauvin said the biggest challenge continues to be the word ‘ballet.’ Immediately, she said, people tend to picture pink tutus or think of it as something elite and only for a certain group of people. It’s starting to be better understood, and something she is committed to continue working at in the years ahead.
Article updated May 4, 2022 at 4:10 p.m.
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