Midway through 2020, Herman Cornejo, one of the best male dancers of his generation, lost his mojo. The company he dances for, American Ballet Theater, had to close its studios because of the pandemic. He was tired of training at home, by himself, on a 5-by-7-foot square of vinyl flooring provided by Ballet Theater. “If I do a single grand jeté” — one of the powerful, spacious jumps he is known for — “I end up next to the wall,” he said at the time.
“I was pushing myself to keep going, until I realized that pushing myself was just making it worse,” he said more recently. So for the first time since he started dancing, when he was 8, he allowed himself to take a break. It was then that he realized what he needed was to create something of his own, he said.
In-person performances were not an option. The dance films he had seen didn’t satisfy — too flat, too impersonal. Instead he was determined to come up with something that “brings people closer to dancers,” he said, that “puts you in the same room with them, and allows you to move around them in space.” Technology offered a possible solution.
With this in mind, he approached the photographer, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed “photo-scientist” Steven Sebring, who had produced a short dance film for Cornejo’s 20th anniversary at Ballet Theater.
Their new collaboration, “DANCELIVE by Herman Cornejo,” will be shown on Saturday on the Veeps website, an online performance platform. (Like a live concert, the show will happen once, at 3 p.m. Eastern. If you miss it, you missed it.) It will consist of two dances, captured by Sebring with an in-the-round camera system he has developed in his laboratory downtown, as well as rehearsal material to give viewers a sense of how the material was created.
One dance is a duet created for Cornejo and his colleague Skylar Brandt by the choreographer Joshua Beamish; the other, a solo devised by Cornejo for himself, set to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Both include ways of seeing the dancers you don’t get in a theater: You can watch them from up close and see their movements from all sides and different angles, the visual equivalent of surround sound. You can see them moving, seemingly on different planes, and at different velocities, or hovering in the air, as if time were amplified.
QR codes (those square bar-codes that look like a strange postage stamp) will allow viewers to use their phones to interact with the online images, moving them forward and back, or to convert them into augmented reality.
Still, this first sampling will give only a small taste of the larger range of experiences Cornejo and Sebring have in mind.
Over the past decade, Sebring, who works with fashion brands, bands, galleries and museums, and who in 2008 directed an award-winning film, “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” has developed a way of capturing his subjects inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s late-19th-century photographic movement studies. These studies, called chronophotographs, were sequential series of photos of animals, and people, as they leapt or walked (or danced). Shown together, they documented every phase of motion.
Like Muybridge, Sebring takes a series of stills — he calls them “pure moments of reality”— with cameras set up in a circle. He then arranges these with the help of digital technology into sequences that suggest immersive, three-dimensional and even four-dimensional space and movement. (What he calls four-dimensional capture is images that trace movement through space over time, creating overlapping impressions, like the phases of movement in Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase.”)
“It’s Muybridge on steroids,” he said recently during a Zoom walk-through of his workshop.
In time, the two artists hope to create a virtual performance space, building upon the capabilities of video game platforms. It will offer films, stills and livestreams of the creation process to subscribers, “almost like in a reality show,” Cornejo said. Viewers will be able to see the dances in augmented reality (as if the dancers were in their space), or virtual reality (as if they were in the dancers’ space).
But all that will take time, and money. This initial release is just a first step.
Cornejo and Sebring are not the first to work on immersive and augmented-reality dance experiences. “What they’re doing is very much in tune with the latest developments in volumetric video technologies,” the filmmaker Alla Kovgan, who directed the 3-D dance documentary “Cunningham,” said in a recent interview. “During a standard volumetric video capture, the dancer is filmed from every possible direction and then turned into a 3-D model that may resemble the actual dancer or may be used to create any other character.”
She added: “In both cases, the aim is to preserve authenticity and nuance of the dancers’ performance and free the audience from a single fixed point of view.”
But because the basic unit in Sebring’s system is still photography rather than film, Sebring said, the process is quicker and less expensive than volumetric video. It also means he can have a small team — “DANCELIVE” involves around 10 people — with tighter artistic control and the ability to react and adapt the material with little fuss.
Cornejo and Sebring began working together in November, at Sebring’s cabinet of curiosities in a building on the Lower East Side that, at the beginning of the 20th century, was home to a vaudeville house, the Clinton Theater. Much of the space is taken up by Sebring’s contraptions: hand-built towers of his own design for viewing holograms at a comfortable height, a control table fitted with multiple screens, and a futuristic-looking thing he calls the Sebring Revolution System.
Built of wood, the Revolution System rises up like a giant cylinder, with a diameter of 30 feet and walls the height of three people standing end to end. Into these walls are embedded over 100 still cameras.
When you step inside — as I did, virtually — it looks like a featureless, all-white capsule, the walls interrupted only by round portholes for the cameras and the outline of the door.
Skylar Brandt, Cornejo’s dance partner in “New York Alive,” the Beamish piece, described the feeling of dancing inside the cylinder with Cornejo. “We would go in, just the two of us, and perform for hours to the white walls,” she said in a phone interview. “It was a little bit like dancing in outer space.”
But the longer they danced inside the circular space, Cornejo said, the more they found their bearings. “I could hear the cameras firing all around me,” he said, “and they became like the audience looking in.”
A 15-minute dance produces more than 20,000 still images, captured over the course of several dozen revolutions — the “revolutions” from which Sebring Revolution derives its name — around the dancers.
The material captured by the cameras is played back on screens in the studio almost instantly, which means that it can be manipulated it in real time. It’s like watching Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” come to life, in motion and in three-dimensions.
In November, Beamish spent three weeks working with Cornejo’s team at the studio — a leisurely pace for the ballet world — to find ways to play with the camera effects. “I let go of the idea of creating a piece that would work on the stage and thought just about what was most compelling on camera,” he said.
Filming was a process of discovery. “Ballet can be so strict,” Cornejo says. “Working with Steven has helped me deconstruct and open up this thing I’ve been doing for such a long time.” A situation beyond his control has forced him to relax his control over what he does, finding new ways of seeing his craft, with a new set of tools.
It has also provided a reason to get back into the studio. As Sebring put it, “this is a time for artists. We have to fend for ourselves.”