UVA joins forces with choreographer Benjamin Millepied to produce Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, an innovative new production held at the Paris Opera Ballet
As the curtain rises, eyes settle on the dance that is already taking place between a partnership of light and body. While it is unclear who leads and who follows, the clarity of the movement itself is deliberate. London-based multidisciplinary art studio United Visual Artist’s strikingly dynamic set and lighting design works in unison with Benjamin Millepied’s choreography and Nico Muhly’s score to create Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward, Millepied’s inaugural season at the Paris Opera Ballet.
This production marks not only Millepied’s first at the POB, but UVA’s first ever ballet. It is a collaboration that embraces the traditional with an unabashed commitment to transforming it. Stripped back to basics, stark and bare, but honest and mobile, the team at UVA uses light to create a stage that is as alive as the dancers upon it. Reflecting the nature of life outside of this space, virtual light is in play with natural light, forming a space that is both illusory and enticing.
Bridging the gap between dance, architecture and music, we discuss with the studio their collaborative approach to art practice, hearing how it results in interdisciplinary works that are dynamic, layered and progressive reflections of our technologically imbued lives.
Reflecting the nature of life outside of this space, virtual light is in play with natural light, forming a space that is both illusory and enticing.
POSTmatter: Since Millepied first invited you to collaborate with the Paris Opera Ballet at the end of 2014, how has the project come to fruition? In what format did you communicate your ideas and how do you feel this affected the process?
United Visual Artists: The first six-month period was very conversational, with lots of exchanging of ideas and reference points in order to formulate a direction. Once the direction was decided, we then explored our ideas in both physical and digital environments in parallel. There was a lot of experimentation, modelling and visualising how our designs would translate to the stage. In reality, the time you actually have on stage with all the performers is frighteningly short, with very little rehearsal time. This is why we have developed digital tools to represent what we plan to do in reality, and that allow us to see what it’ll look like in advance. And these same tools are also used to control the final installation.
PM: How did you use light to turn the stage into a space that is as much a performer as the dancers?
UVA: We created three of what we call ‘spatial instruments’. These mechanically driven objects hung like pendulums above the stage and swung on two axes. Each pendulum had its own functional light source that illuminated the stage architecture. Much like our Momentum installation at the Barbican, we were able to slow down or stop the pendulum at any point in space, thus creating the illusion of time being manipulated or grinding to a halt. The big evolution for this project was connecting the physical movement of the pendulums to a ‘virtual light’ source, made from digitally projected light. Using these projectors, we covered every surface of the stage area in order to create our ‘virtual set’. So wherever the pendulums pointed, we could create a virtual light source. This allowed us to seamlessly transition from real light emitting from the pendulums to a virtual light created by the digital projectors.
We were able to slow down or stop the pendulum at any point in space, thus creating the illusion of time being manipulated or grinding to a halt.
PM: What new artistic challenges and directions emerged from the process of choreographing programmed light in unison with human dancers?
UVA: As the title suggests the choreography was very dynamic, energetic and complex. The main challenge was to create spatial compositions that sometimes contrasted with the human movement, and at other times worked in harmony with it, but always felt deliberate. Our virtual light is in no way as bright as a conventional light, so there was a very fine balance of light and dark that had to be found in every scene. Our mechanical lights were versatile with their movements but not nearly as responsive as a human being. So when a dance move changes, we have to respond to those decisions in a way that doesn’t spoil the creative flow of choreography.
Our mechanical lights were versatile with their movements but not nearly as responsive as a human being.
PM: ‘Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward’ is a contemporary creation that remains loyal to classical technique. In what ways does the inclusion of classic references help new artistic practices to evolve?
UVA: Benjamin was particularly interested in the core principles of Baroque dance and how that philosophy translated to other art forms such as music, architecture and landscape design. The original Baroque dance blueprints are really interesting from a visual perspective. They look like architectural musical scores, there are rigid structures for group compositions combined with flowing gestures for individual body movements. We (UVA) have never worked on a ballet production, so the Baroque references helped us understand the formations and architectural nature of what Benjamin was creating. We could then respond to that with the set, which we also considered as a performer.
PM: How do you feel our relationship with technology is questioned here?
UVA: At UVA we are interested in how the increasing integration of technology to our daily lives may be affecting our perception of what we consider a real experience compared to that of a virtual one. The most interesting parts of the show were where it became difficult to tell what was a naturally lit environment compared to what was ‘virtually’ lit using the digital projection. So the performance is full of illusions and deceptions, but people seem willing to suspend their disbelief in return for something that is seductive and entertaining.