Meet Blanca Li: The Choreographer Who Unites Dancers and Audience in Virtual Reality

Now showing in Singapore, Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li is a one-of-a-kind live action VR theatrical performance, where the audience is part of the show.
Published: March 9, 2024
Photo: Courtesy of Lalo Cortes

Get your VR headsets on and enter a virtual world where the guests don exquisite vintage Chanel gowns and share the stage with real life dancers, who play the leads in a dreamy love story, set in whimsical digital dreamscape. If none of this makes any sense to you, can you imagine the challenge show creator Blanca Li went through trying to pitch this unusual concept to potential investors? “The dance world couldn’t understand my vision, so I went to talk to people from the tech and cinema industry instead,” shares Li of her highly-acclaimed virtual reality show Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li.

A highly-respected choreographer and filmmaker from Granada, Spain, Li is a graduate of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance. She started dancing at the tender age of 12 and is skilled at every dance form, from flamenco to ballet, as well as rhythmic gymnastics. Through the decades, she has traversed the globe to explore and develop her craft and now resides in Paris, where she has been running her dance school, Compagnie Blanca Li, for over 30 years.

Photo: Courtesy of Lalo Cortes

Celebrated for her unique artistic vision and ability to merge various artistic disciplines into captivating performances, Li has created works for numerous prestigious dance companies and theatres around the world, including the Paris Opera Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow. She has also choreographed for films, commercials, music videos, and fashion events for designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier and Stella McCartney.

These days, Li has been dabbling in digital technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and marrying them into her projects. The most famous of them is award-winning Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li, which first premiered in Chaillot, Théâtre National de la Danse in 2021. Since then, the show has gone on to win “Best VR Experience” at the 78th Venice International Film Festival, drawing more than 50,000 participants till date. The tour has taken the show to stages across France, Switzerland, Italy, Serbia, England, Taiwan, and its latest stop in Singapore.

This March, Singapore audiences can enjoy the magical combination of music, dance and narrative blended seamlessly with VR in Le Bal de Paris, now on till 17 March 2024.

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li

In this 50-minute VR live show, audiences enter a living-room sized space and get strapped on with digital devices like a computer belt, leg and arm sensors, and headset.

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li

Once they are in the digital realm, they choose their avatars wearing clothing designed exclusively by CHANEL.

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li

Following that, they are ushered into an exquisite Parisian gala where dancers play lead characters Adèle and Pierre, who rekindle their romance after many years apart.

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li

Through pre-recorded dialogue and music combined with live dancing, we journey with the couple through various glamorous scenes, from ballroom to playful garden, via different modes of transport like a boat, train and tram.

Photo: Courtesy of Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li

The storyline is simple, but the virtual world (albeit a little pixelated) is a visual feast for the senses, where you can smell roses, feel wind or droplets of water on your skin. Overall, I recommend this for anyone who appreciates music, art, dance, theatre and gaming. The bonus is that this is probably the only time you get to wear CHANEL couture to a ball in Paris!

Note: If you suffer motion sickness or vertigo, or are pregnant and under 10 years, this show is not suited for you. Standing on a moving stage or vehicle or walking through a maze and having the freedom to move around and interact with the space independently, may feel dizzying for some.

Le Bal de Paris, beyond the intention of creating a live show that is unique and immersive, is the result of an unexpected rendezvous between many contributors. Here, Li talks how she came up with this first-of-its-kind concept that marries technology, music, theatre and dance.

Can you explain the concept behind Le Bal de Paris?

This is the only show in the world where you have a real-life performance happening in the virtual world, and it's all live. You’re not just watching something that is there, you are actually living an experience with a group of people who are physically present. It’s really surreal and highly interactive. You are with your friends and other people, and the dancers are also there to tell you the story. They sing and dance, you follow them, they talk to you, and they dance with you. It's hard to understand unless you do it.

What were some of the challenges making this come to life?

I actually had this idea in my head for many years, but I had to wait for the technology to become available. For this project, I worked with a French company that I’ve known for the past two years.

Typically, in a VR set-up, it’s just one person in a room. The first big challenge for us was to make the technology work for the amount of people I wanted, where they could see each other, and allow for a full-range of body movements. And once we had the possibility of being together in a room to see each other, and could touch each other and dance together, it took time to create the visuals to build this virtual world. All in all, it took us a total of four years to make this a reality…a virtual reality!

The other problem was the equipment, which in the beginning weighed nine kilos. It made things very cumbersome for the audience to move around, and dancers to do the choreography. Thankfully, in the last two years, we’ve managed to downsize the VR kit into a belt that weighs only two kilos, and we have a better headset with clearer graphics.

How did the collaboration with Chanel come about?

When I when I had this idea, I didn't want the aesthetics to look like a video game, because for me it's a real show. The whole story happens in a party in Paris. It’s very chic, very elegant, the décor is beautiful, and atmosphere is romantic. I wanted people to have the interaction of choosing your clothes, and thought it has to be done by a real fashion designer. For me, it was immediately CHANEL, whom I already have a working relationship with. I shared my concept with them and asked them to be part of the show, and they said yes. When I told them the story, they suggested bringing in vintage pieces from their haute couture archives. We took pictures of these outfits from all angles, including the jewellery and shoes, to create 3D renderings and used that to make the avatars.

What has been the general feedback thus far?

It has been very positive. It is a very bonding activity for groups of friends and families, where children share the experience with their grandparents, laughing, playing – it’s very beautiful to watch. For me, the biggest surprise is seeing older audiences enjoy the show. I had one 93-year-old woman who said she felt blessed to be alive to see this. I had another woman in a wheelchair who was very emotional after the show, because in virtual reality, the wheelchair disappeared, and she stood like a normal person. I also had audiences with autism and Alzheimer’s who reacted very well to it. There is just something about virtual reality that alters the brain for that brief moment.

How do you see virtual reality impacting the future of dance and performance?

It's not going to change what dance is, but it gives us another possibility and opportunity to create in a different way. For me, I'm still doing ballet with my dancers the traditional way; it doesn't mean that I'm only going to do virtual reality. It’s just fun to know that in the 21st century, we can do something remarkable and out of the ordinary. It’s exciting knowing I'm the first one in the world to have to pioneered this. And what is more beautiful is knowing your audience have never experienced anything like this before.

What would you like to share with Singapore audiences about this show?

This is definitely an experience worth trying. It’s fun and joyful and even better in larger groups. My team has been here the past month setting up and training a local group of dancers, because to me, it’s important they the lead characters understand the cultural nuances of their demographics.

What’s next for you?

Currently, I have hip hop group and contemporary dance troupe on tour. I do have some collaborations for cinema, and I’m also working on a new mixed reality project, which is a dance show mixed with augmented reality. It’s interesting to further explore how technology can impact the dance world.

Le Bal de Paris de Blanca Li, presented by Singapore Street Festival, brings its grandeur to Infinite Studios from 2 March 2024 to 17 March 2024. Tickets are priced at $73 on weekdays (Sunday through Thursday) and $87 on weekends (Friday and Saturday) from Sistic.

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