Lily Baldwin and Saschka Unseld have made a virtual-reality film that melds dance and VR. Credit Albert Sanchez and Pedro Zalba
Making art, for the filmmaker and choreographer Lily Baldwin, comes with responsibility. “Can I make you feel something?” she said. “Can I turn you on?”
In “Through You,” a virtual-reality film that Ms. Baldwin directed with Saschka Unseld, she not only achieves that but also makes a powerful case for pairing dance and virtual reality. They were made for each other: After all, virtual reality gives the viewer a body, and more.
“Virtual reality can puncture what we think is real and return us to our body in a way that flatty cinema can’t,” Ms. Baldwin said in a recent interview. It reminds her of modern dance, in which meaning isn’t always clear-cut, yet can still wash over you like a sensation. “It makes you feel alive,” she continued. “Wakes you up. And it somehow makes you reckon with your mortality.”
Intense and brisk — her ideas seem to sprout more quickly than she can find the words for them — Ms. Baldwin has long considered new ways of thinking about choreography and dance. Movement is the language in “Through You,” which allows viewers to experience love, loss and heartbreak in visceral terms over five generations of one couple’s relationship.
Ms. Baldwin regards the film, to be released in early summer on Oculus (a platform for virtual-reality applications and experiences), as an existential love poem. In it, the Juilliard-trained actor Amari Cheatom and the contemporary dancer and choreographer Joanna Kotze bring the couple, James and Julia, to life. In the end, when Julia is 92 and alone, Marnie Thomas Wood, a veteran of the Martha Graham company, takes over for Ms. Kotze.
Each passing decade explores a different vocabulary of gesture and posture, which raises a question: How does narrative read in dance without words or explanation? In virtual reality, you don’t only understand it, but as an invisible witness, you can also both interpret it for yourself and feel it.
Joanna Kotze and Amari Cheatom in “Through You.” Credit Dagmar Weaver-Madsen
In the final moments of “Through You,” Ms. Wood, who is 80 and moves like silk, performs a dance of release. She sets the room on fire, which burns it — and us — down. It starts with a match dropped on the floor; the fires grows and closes in until it feels like you, along with the walls and floor, are engulfed in flames.
Action in “Through You” doesn’t always happen in front of you, like on a flat screen or the proscenium stage, but all around your body. Watching it creates a sense of weightlessness — as if you’re floating as you move with the dancers or even seem to become them. You drift from feeling like the protagonist to a voyeur. You lose track of time. You twist, you turn, you move.
Mr. Unseld met Ms. Baldwin in 2014 at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where her short “Sleepover LA” was being shown; he was on the jury and loved her dark, dance-heavy film. “I was always fascinated with dance,” he said. “I just never knew anyone from that world.”
All the same, the way dance was usually shot bored him. “When it’s a performance, there is a fragility and a preciousness of it happening in the moment,” Mr. Unseld said. “Of course, it’s gone when you film it.”
Or is it? You can’t recreate a performance, he said, but you can embellish it. And the dance element in “Through You” inspired him and Ms. Baldwin to try something new. In virtual reality, it is often assumed that moving the camera excessively creates motion sickness for viewers. But the filmmakers, who worked on this project through a Sundance Institute New Frontier/Jaunt VR residency, felt differently.
“We constantly accelerate and decelerate and do curves,” Mr. Unseld said. “What we found out was that people just haven’t thought about it enough.”
Shooting the film, at a house in Queens and in a black-box theater in Manhattan, they wore black clothing, as puppeteers would, to stay out of the shots. “Saschka and I would worm around on the floor together — he would move the camera, and I would direct the performers,” Ms. Baldwin said. “It was very odd, but a cool way of working.”
Before becoming a filmmaker, Ms. Baldwin was a contemporary dancer in New York, where she worked with independent choreographers including Faye Driscoll, as well as with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. As the choreographer of “Through You,” her goal was to create movement without artifice that followed her and Mr. Unseld’s story. In the studio, she worked improvisationally with the performers, and during the shoots would guide them from the floor.
Ms. Baldwin, who plans to collaborate with Mr. Unseld on more virtual-reality projects, has been integrating dance and film since she performed on tour with David Byrne in 2009. She started making videos in her hotel room then and began to change her focus from dancing to putting dance on film. She said she realized that people heard the music better because there was this visual element with it.
“I think that people respond to the body,” she said. For Mr. Byrne’s concerts, she added, “contemporary dance was in front of thousands of people. I thought, O.K., what if dance could be this tool to engage people outside of the box of modern dance and into this object that can travel through time like a film?”
Ms. Wood wasn’t familiar with Ms. Baldwin’s work before they met. So why did she trust her?
“I went to Pain Quotidien, and there she was in a pair of overalls like she was just out of West Virginia, which is where I’m from, with her computer open and scratching her head,” Ms. Wood said. “She started out on this whole thing as if we were already in Act III. I was like, I’ve known you for three and a half minutes, but this is great — this is something so fierce. It’s got to happen.”
Ms. Baldwin is currently trying to make several projects happen, including “Glass,” a thriller about a dancer and an obsessive fan, and “Glass invisible,” a virtual-reality experience that will place the viewer in the position of being stalked; it’s based on her own experiences with a stalker.
But if dance is being experienced differently through a lens, an important question remains: Where does that lens end up? Is it in a screening or on a phone? “We need to think about all of those places when we think about choreography,” she said. “The movement, the focus, the editing — it will all be different depending on what you do with the lensed material. In ‘Through You,’ because we got to break all the rules and twist the preconceptions, I got to just be weird and suddenly it was condoned.”
And she loves weird. With virtual reality, she’s figured out a way to change a viewer’s sense of body. “I think of the film as the stage,” she said. “I cut the stage and wrap it around you.”
But perhaps even better is that with virtual reality, it’s still the early days. “There’s no rules,” she added. “It’s just a big, dirty sandbox.”