This is part 2 of a 5-part series on virtual reality in humanities. This article series explores the trends and use cases of how universities are utilizing VR and visualization to further explore research and public engagement opportunities in the humanities.

In 2011, Melanie Stewart – professor of theatre and dance at Rowan University – stepped into the South Jersey Technology Park at Rowan University for the first time. The head of the Park, Dr. Shreekanth Mandayam, had invited any university professor to come and collaborate within the CAVE. Inspired and enamored by the four-sided space, consisting of three walls and a floor, Stewart slowly began playing with a new way to choreograph her dance pieces. She brought her students to the CAVE and started coordinating dances and classes in the virtual reality space.

Passion for VR began to grow in the dance department. It wasn’t long before Stewart began to consider how to combine live performance with 3D virtual imaging, text, movement, and sound to make a completely revolutionary work of visual theatre. All these elements would create a compelling, engaging, and inspiring presentation in the contemporary space.

When Things Get Sticky

The curtains open, revealing a nearly empty stage. A large projection screen frames the rear of the stage, with seven chairs and a table along the edge. A masculine, Mexican man swaggers onto the stage, barely noticing the small Korean woman draped over his shoulders. He approaches the microphone in center stage and begins to speak rapidly in Spanish.

As the performance continues, a complex story about the couple unveils. Through the symbolism of dance and performance, the couple begins to disagree, argue, and vie for control. The male dancer, Guillermo Ortega Tanus, dances powerfully and attempts to dominate his on-stage and off-stage wife, Eun Jung Choi, who lithely manages to stay a step ahead of him. The couple’s continuous back-and-forth paints a distinct picture of the pressures found in a long-term, interracial relationship.

Then about halfway through the performance, something very unique happens. Tanus rests under a stack of chairs, while Choi climbs to the top of a chair sitting on the table. The lights dim, and the one-dimensional screen at the rear of the stage flashes with a new image. It’s a recording of Choi, and the recorded version stands inside Rowan University’s three-sided CAVE in a simulated apartment.

 “The combination of the virtual spaces and the choreography represents the individual, psychological worlds of each performer,” says Stewart. “This virtual world is created in their imagination, and the figures get lost. It’s a very compelling way to tell a story.”

The pre-recorded version of Choi begins a new dance in the three-dimensional space. She anxiously and erratically explores the virtual reality world around her. She leaps from furniture, leans against pillows, and grasps at technology. The scale and sizing of the simulated objects change around her, and she responds quickly to the adapting surroundings. All the while, Choi and Tanus stay motionless while the recording plays behind them, representing both the conscious and unconscious worlds.

As the performance continues, Tanus takes a turn watching a pre-recorded version of himself in the three-dimensional parallel world onscreen, continuing the theme of how a person gets lost in their imagination. As the couple takes turns interacting with each other in reality and then escaping to their imaginary worlds, a greater story of the couple’s love and expectations of each other slowly peels away, giving the audience a clearer understanding of the couple’s long-term commitment to each other.

“In the visual digital world, a ‘sticky’ image is one that stays with you,” explains Stewart. “Part of the inspiration is exploring whether the images we are using will stick. And would the use of 3D imaging in live performance make it more compelling for the audience, draw them in more, and make it more engaging in a contemporary view?”  

Creative & Innovative Art Using Virtual Reality

Sticky premiered in New York in 2016, but its first appearance was in Mexico City in 2012. The initial run, while very innovative, suffered from what many first-time VR users struggle with: not knowing the full capabilities of virtual reality.

“We didn’t understand the parameters of what was possible,” says Stewart. “We had very limited time in the lab, and a lot less time to put it together. When I was awarded an interdisciplinary grant in 2016, I wanted to go back and reproduce it again.”

With a better understanding of the story she wanted to tell, the capabilities of virtual reality, and more time under her belt, Stewart recreated Sticky. She directed a team of interns, engineers, animators, music scorers, graphic designers, video editors, and the dancers themselves to create what became known as Sticky Redux.

“I’m so glad I was able to go back and do it again,” says Stewart. “It’s very gratifying to see your hard work nailed. It’s not perfect, but it’s much more satisfying.”

The performance is based on the Dada art movement. First appearing in the early 20th century, Dadaism originally responded to the brutality of World War II. Continuing to criticize for the world we live in, Dadaism combines elements of absurdity, spontaneity, irony, nonsense, and experimentation to address something in the contemporary culture.

Understanding Humanity through Dance & VR

Sticky Redux’s creativity combines dance performance with virtual worlds to examine the couple’s struggles. Throughout the performance, Tanus and Choi waver between dependence and independence, peace and aggression, and communication nuances in both the real world and the unconscious world. All while bringing in elements of experimentation and spontaneity by way of virtual reality.

The humanities—specifically pieces of art such as dance or poetry—continuously force their audiences to consider something familiar in a new way. Art rarely focuses on the surface meaning or a general context, but instead explores complicated themes and sub-contexts. Dancers continuously strive to make audiences analyze their own emotions by evoking different emotional elements in their performance. However, combining elements of conscious and unconscious, the imagination and the reality, in the same dance piece challenges choreographers.

The power of virtual reality, the way Stewart captured it, creates a seamless and innovative way to bridge the gap. An individual’s psyche, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are fraught with complexity. Instead of a disjointed performance where Choi could have performed a dance that represented her unconscious, she sees her unconscious along with the audience. This innovative way to tell a story is what truly drove Stewart’s desire to recreate Sticky.

“You won’t find Sticky on Broadway,” she continues. “It’s an experimental work of art. It examines questions about human nature and provokes audiences to think about the relationships with themselves and the world. That’s where you get the provocateur and know you’re in the humanities now.”

Conclusion

Despite the conclusion of Sticky, Stewart’s work is far from over. “I want to do more with VR and I want to do something new,” she explains.

“I’m an experimental dance theatre artist working with new forms,” says Stewart. “This is way beyond, ‘Let’s put up a green screen.’ It’s about bringing people in the room together and experimenting, and becoming integrated and fluid.” 

Learn more about Melanie Stewart and Sticky Redux and Rowan University’s CAVE.