#66: Inarra Saarinen on mixed reality live performances with Ballet Pixelle’s virtual dance company

Inarra Saarinen is the founder, artistic director and choreographer of Ballet Pixelle, does virtual dance performances in Second Life. She talks about the process of blending physical and virtual realities, and pushing the boundaries in creating a new form of dance.

inarra-saarinenIt’s not just about replicating physical reality in a virtual world, but integrating all of the things that are impossible in the real world including hovering, flying, moving your limbs beyond a body-joint movement. becoming an object, animal or dragon, being able to change your skin color, gender, and age.

She talks about some of the limitations of only having 28 bones to work with in Second Life, and her process of scripting out segments of animation sequences, but allowing each dancer to be responsible for the timing of the execution while having the room to improvise.

Inarra doesn’t want to create an automated experience that’s the same every time, but rather capture the vibrancy and vitality that comes with the imperfections and character of live performances. She also talks about how a lot of the participants aren’t physically able to be in a professional dance troupe, and that by participating in Ballet Pixelle the they’re able to have a kinesthetic experience of feeling like they’re performing dance on stage.

It’s interesting to hear all of the insights that Inarra has from doing Ballet Pixelle since 2006, and I imagine that the blending of physical and virtual during live performances will be an area of rich exploration over the next decade. From the VR community perspective, the Riftmax Theater’s Karaoke night starts to explore this blending of realities during live performances, and it’s a bit of an open question as far as what will be considered the most compelling and beautiful experiences within this new spectrum of mixed realities.


  • 0:00 – Intro. Founder, artistic director and choreographer of Ballet Pixelle, does virtual dance performances in Second Life.
  • 0:40 – How is movement controlled? Creates animations and chunks of movement in scripts and puts them into Second Life where each dancer is in control of their avatar’s performance.
  • 1:28 – Create animations in 3 ways. Individual keyframe per 30 fps and import into Second Life. Also uses a motion capture suit, but Second Life only allows 28 out of 206 bones. Also using a Kinect system to put the animations in a coherent sequence.
  • 2:31 – How does the dance trouble keep in sync. They keep the beat like another and are in charge of triggering the actions with their keyboard & mouse.
  • 3:03 – What’s been the reaction? Lots of powerful emotional reactions.
  • 3:35 – What is the audience connecting to? It’s a combination of telling story with set, lighting and movement. Movement is a universal language, and if you put together correctly, then you get an emotional resonance.
  • 3:57 – Sleep No More dance performance of MacBeth. Any dialog? There’s a playbill that tells the story of the ballet just like you would in any other live performance. The story should tell itself, but there’s a bit of help provided
  • 4:42 – What’s motivating your performers in your dance troupe? Had people in the troupe since 2006. They really get the kinesthetic experience of performing, and a lot of them have physical or other limitations where they’ve never been able to do that be for. They feel like they’re on stage and giving a dance performance.
  • 5:45 – The human synchronization and not being driven by a robot. A movie is the same every time, but live theater is not the same every time. Trying to create an experience that’s vibrant. It’s art, not automation. She wants those human imperfections. Choreograph ballets that allows them to deliberately go out of sync and to make order out of chaos.
  • 6:54 – Are there auditions? Lots of things are different. Transform, hover, fly and move beyond body limits. But lots of similarities and universals of working with other people. Some of the things they look for.
  • 7:44 – Coordinating across many different time zones for live performances. You can teleport in Second Life, but you still have time zones. Have both a European and North American dance troupe. But it can be difficult.
  • 8:35 – Other considerations for broadcasting music and clearing rights. Been very copyright sensitive from the very beginning. Made sure that everything is copyright cleared, and have clearance from everyone involved.
  • 9:42 – Right for each performance and image release for avatars
  • 10:18 – What keeps you engaged? It’s creative and at outer bounds of being creative. It’s a new form of dance. It’s not just adding something. It’s an exploration of physical and virtual movement and blending of realities, which is a different form. What do we find beautiful about virtual dance? Developing a language for virtual dance.
  • 11:34 – Things you can do virtual dance: Hover, fly, move beyond a body-joint movement. Become an object, animal or dragon. Change your skin color, gender, Become a child.
  • 12:00 – Use all of these components in all of her ballets.
  • 12:17 – Pushing limits of what’s physical possible and expanding audience for dance. Gives dancers a chance to experience performances. Teach history of ballet and technique.
  • 13:04 – Immersive VR with the Oculus Rift, and future of limb tracking with dancing in VR. Not as interested in translating your movements into the virtual world, because the animations are doing things that you couldn’t be doing. Not interested in replicated the real world, and can’t go out and hire real professional dancers
  • 14:36 – Ultimate potential for virtual environments. We’ll eventually live in virtual worlds.
  • 15:03 – Next open problem to solve with virtual dance. Limited by the 28 bones that are allowed by Second Life out of the 206 bones. On a world audition tour to do choreographic studies and do motion capture of dancers to study the movement of professional dancers.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio