While the pandemic has forced the performing arts sector to develop virtual and eventually hybrid formats, in 2022 Les 7 Doigts put together the first “multi-reality” circus show. First shown in Vancouver in June and more recently in Montreal in December, both runs of the show were also made available online via streaming, interactive, and immersive formats.
Let’s explore these different “realities” and see what they reveal about the intersection of performing arts and new technologies.
Circus, the virtual way
CARRY ME HOME is the first show to emerge from the LiViCi project (for Live Virtual Circus), a collaboration between the Montreal-based Les 7 Doigts and Shocap Entertainment, a studio in Vancouver that specializes in using motion capture for real-time virtual production. The objective of this unlikely partnership is to explore ways of using digital technologies in the context of performing arts.
In an interview dating from December 20, 2022, Samuel Tétreault (Artistic Director, Les 7 Doigts) tells me that one of the project’s main goals is to see how a technology such as motion capture could be used in the service artistic creation, rather than as an end in itself. Specifically, the experiments that both studios have been conducting since 2020 focus on the use of motion capture for animating acrobatic performances in real time.
The idea with LiViCi is therefore not to reproduce what cinema and video games already do with this technique, namely using the movements of a performer to animate a character in post-production. As we saw in CARRY ME HOME, the avatars are rather animated in real time and simultaneously projected on a wall behind the acrobats. The result is something entirely new: half live circus show, half 3D animated film.
The process requires enormous technical resources, including 80 infrared cameras and a set of 52 markers for each acrobat. However, Les 7 Doigts and Shocap have taken care to hide the markers under the costumes, so that technology does not come between the audience and the show.
CARRY ME HOME
CARRY ME HOME tells a story constructed from the music of the singer-songwriter and acrobat Didier Stowe. The inciting incident of the narrative is a concussion Stowe suffered a few years ago that made him reconsider his life choices and priorities. As the story unfolds, the audience tags along for a trip through the acrobat’s head as we revisit key moments from his life and songs. The journey is guided by the acrobats themselves who, dressed all in grey, play the role of neurons.
Each of the four scenes is accompanied by an original song, performed live by Stowe, even in the act where he performs breathtaking jumps on the wall trampoline. Throughout the show, motion capture serves to modulate the narrative and expressive abilities of circus by transforming the five performers into various characters for each episode. The walls and clothes of the acrobats are thus transformed into as many sets and costumes.
The First Multi-Reality Show
What is meant by multi-reality? The term used by Les 7 Doigts to promote the show initially refers to the four formats in which CARRY ME HOME was presented: in person, video, interactive and immersive. However, in my opinion multi-reality also refers as much, if not more, to the fact that the show takes place simultaneously in two parallel universes: the physical and the virtual. That is to say, the various virtual formats are not simply lesser alternatives to the “real” show performed on stage in Montreal. “These are complementary experiences,” confirms Samuel Tétreault. To get the most of what CARRY ME HOME has to offer, audience members must move from one reality to another, whether they are present on site or accessing the show in virtual reality.
Each format is different and offers its own advantages and challenges. Asking whether the virtual version of the show lives up to the physical version would be missing the point of the exercise. Rather, the question worth asking is closer to “What does the virtual afford that the physical alone does not?” And vice versa: How can motion capture help create worlds and narratives that go beyond what the body alone can do? Conversely, how might the virtuosity of the human body serve to ground the acrobatics performed by the avatars. Of course, the opposite also applies: how do the virtual and the physical limit each other?
This new genre of live performance is a way for The 7 Fingers, and for the performing arts industry, to explore innovative artistic languages and to reach new audiences beyond theatrical venues while keeping the human element at the center of the cultural experience.
– Press release, CARRY ME HOME
Let’s take an example. In an aerial ring act, the juxtaposition of the two realities—created by the projection of the virtual world behind the performers — gave the distinct impression that the artist was dancing with her digital double. This effect was produced, among other reasons, by the virtual camera angle which offered a different point of view on the action than the one I occupied in the audience. Moreover, the slight but noticeable lag that still remained between the performer’s movements and those of her avatar seems to have been taken into account when designing the numbers; a technical limitation of real-time motion capture leads to a creative result.
Window on New Worlds
I cannot fault anyone who might believe the ideal experience remains the live show: the astonishment of hearing Didier Stowe sing a new verse between two rounds on the wall trampoline, the thrill caused by the pirouettes of acrobatic dances, by the hair suspension number and by all the other stunts is probably stronger in person than with any remote option.
This is precisely why 7 Fingers and Shocap made sure to offer windows into physical reality within the virtual spaces visited by the audiences joining via computer or virtual reality headset. Knowing that someone really did perform all these stunts gives them back the feeling of risk and wonder that virtual technologies otherwise risk eliminating.
CARRY ME HOME actually offers a third window, in addition to those that join the physical and virtual worlds. Let’s call it a window from the metaverse into the world of the circus and of performing arts in general.
In response to a question asked by Alexandre Téodoresco (Director of Strategic Development and Innovation, Les 7 Doigts) after one of the three performances, Didier Stowe said he hoped that using these technologies could make circus arts more attractive to a younger audience, one that would not already know this artistic medium. Samuel Tétreault also speaks of this desire to “open up to a new young audience that might never have seen a show in a theatre.” If the use of codes and techniques from the field of video game and metaverse platforms manages to convert new audiences, part of LiViCi’s bets will be won.
In the shorter term, Samuel Tétreault also explains that the goal is to use LiViCi as a calling card. Could other shows be transformed into a “multi-reality” format? How would the LiViCi model apply to concerts, theatre, or other types of performing arts? Finally, could motion capture also be used to archive these performances for later viewing?
Hopefully, new shows to come in the LiViCi series will give us the answers to these questions.