In mid-2020, Herman Cornejo, one of the best male dancers of his generation, lost his mojo. The company he dances for, the American Ballet Theater, had to close its studios due to the pandemic. He was fed up with exercising at home alone on a 5 by 7 foot square of vinyl flooring provided by the Ballet Theater. “If I do a single Grand Jeté” – one of the powerful, spacious jumps for which it is known – “I end up next to the wall,” he said at the time.
“I pushed myself to keep going until I realized that pushing myself would only make me worse,” he said recently. For the first time since he started dancing when he was 8, he took a break. It was then that he realized he had to create something of his own, he said.
Personal appearances were not an option. The dance films he’d seen were unsatisfactory – too shallow, too impersonal. Instead, he was determined to come up with something that “brings people closer to dancers,” he said, “that brings you into the same room with them and allows you to move around in the space”. Technology offered one possible solution.
With this in mind, he turned to the photographer, filmmaker and self-proclaimed “photo scientist” Steven Sebring, who had produced a short dance film for Cornejo’s 20th anniversary at the Ballet Theater.
Their new collaboration “DANCELIVE by Herman Cornejo” will be shown on Saturday on the Veeps website, an online performance platform. It will consist of two dances recorded by Sebring with an in-the-round camera system developed by Sebring in his laboratory in the city center, as well as rehearsal material to give viewers an impression of how the material was created.
A dance is a duet that the choreographer Joshua Beamish created for Cornejo and his colleague Skylar Brandt. the other, a solo developed by Cornejo for himself, plays Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Both involve ways to see the dancers that you can’t get in a theater: you can see them up close and see their movements from all sides and angles, the visual equivalent of surround sound. You can see them moving, seemingly on different planes and at different speeds, or floating in the air as if time were being extended.
QR codes (those square barcodes that look like a strange postage stamp) allow viewers to use their phones to interact with the online images, moving them back and forth, or converting them to augmented reality.
Still, this first sample will only give a small taste of the bigger experiences Cornejo and Sebring have in mind.
Over the past decade, Sebring, who has worked with fashion brands, bands, galleries, and museums and made the award-winning film Patti Smith: Dream of Life in 2008, has developed a method to capture his Eadweard-inspired motifs in Muybridge’s photographic motion studies of the late 19th century. These studies, called chronophotographs, were sequential series of photos of animals and people jumping, walking (or dancing). Shown together, they documented every phase of movement.
Like Muybridge, Sebring takes a series of still images – he calls them “pure moments of reality” – with cameras set up in a circle. With the help of digital technology, he then arranges them into sequences that suggest an immersive, three-dimensional and even four-dimensional space and movement. (What he calls four-dimensional recording are images that track movement through space over time and create overlapping impressions, such as the phases of movement in Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”.)
“It’s Muybridge versus steroids,” he said recently during a Zoom tour of his workshop.
Over time, the two artists hope to create a virtual performance space that builds on the capabilities of video game platforms. It will offer subscribers movies, stills, and live streams of the creation process, “almost like being on a reality show,” Cornejo said. The audience can see the dances in augmented reality (as if the dancers were in their room) or in virtual reality (as if they were in the dancers’ room).
But all of this will take time and money. This first version is just a first step.
Cornejo and Sebring aren’t the first to work on immersive and augmented reality dance experiences. “What they are doing is very much in line with the latest developments in volumetric video technology,” said filmmaker Alla Kovgan, who directed the 3-D dance documentary “Cunningham,” in a recent interview. “During a standard volumetric video recording, the dancer is filmed from every possible direction and then converted into a 3D model that is similar to the actual dancer or can be used to create a different character.”
She added, “In both cases the goal is to preserve the authenticity and nuance of the dancers’ performance and free the audience from a single fixed point of view.”
But because the basic unit in Sebring’s system is still photography instead of film, the process is faster and cheaper than volumetric video. This also means that he can have a small team – there are around 10 people involved in “DANCELIVE” – with tighter artistic control and the ability to react and adapt the material with little effort.
Cornejo and Sebring began their collaboration in November in the Sebring Cabinet of Curiosities in a building on the Lower East Side that housed a variety house, the Clinton Theater, at the beginning of the 20th century. Much of the space is taken up by Sebring’s devices: handcrafted towers of his own design for viewing holograms at comfortable heights, a multi-screen control table, and a futuristic-looking thing he calls the Sebring Revolution System.
The wooden revolutionary system rises like a giant cylinder 30 feet in diameter with walls the height of three people standing end to end. Over 100 still cameras are embedded in these walls.
When you enter – as I did virtually – it looks like a strange, pure white capsule, the walls of which are only interrupted by round portholes for the cameras and the outline of the door.
Skylar Brandt, Cornejo’s dance partner in “New York Alive”, the Beamish piece, described the feeling of dancing with Cornejo in the top hat. “We went in, just the two of us, and performed on the white walls for hours,” she said in a telephone interview. “It was a bit like dancing in space.”
But the longer they danced in the circular room, Cornejo said, the more they found their bearings. “I could hear the cameras shooting around me,” he said, “and they became like the audience looking in.”
A 15-minute dance produces more than 20,000 still images captured around the dancers over the course of several dozen revolutions – the “revolutions” after which the Sebring Revolution takes its name.
The footage captured by the cameras is played back almost instantly on screens in the studio, which means it can be edited in real time. It is like bringing Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” to life in motion and in three dimensions.
In November, Beamish worked with Cornejo’s team in the studio for three weeks – a leisurely pace for the ballet world – trying to find ways to play with the camera effects. “I let go of the idea of creating a piece that would work on stage and thought about what was the most compelling in front of the camera,” he said.
Filming was a process of discovery. “Ballet can be so strict,” says Cornejo. “Working with Steven has helped me deconstruct and open up what I’ve been doing for so long.” A situation beyond his control has forced him to loosen his control over what he is doing and use new tools to find new ways of looking at his craft.
It also provided a reason to go back to the studio. As Sebring put it, “This is a time for artists. We have to take care of ourselves. “