Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Spirit Dance Company and Celebrating Diversity - A Conversation

I knew that the preparations were underway when I had received a teleport request from Caryl Meredith.  I took it and arrived shortly afterward on the set of “Celebrating Diversity”. We exchanged pleasantries while she paused in her activities and introduced me to several members of the ensemble. All were there, busy as they organized for the dance sequence of the “Four Elements”. This evening’s performance was both a rehearsal and a continuation of the filming of the entire diversity performance as presented by the Spirit Dance Company. Ms Meredith is a co-founder of the company along with Starheart Erdhein.  The former asked me to take a seat on the left of the stage and to turn off my microphone as they finished their prep work.
As their activities continued, along with the arrival a few more cast members, I opened my notes from the interview I’d conducted with Caryl a few days earlier. We’d been joined by Lunabeam Moonites, a member of the company who had helped me arrange the meeting and due to the problems of logging into Second Life, a late and apologetic Ms Erdhein. We had met on this same stage where Caryl had set out four chairs. When I arrived, she informed me that Starheart was experiencing some difficulty with logging into Second Life. I waited for the ladies to choose their seat before I clicked and sat across from Caryl.  Lunabeam sat on the one to my right.
“Should we wait for her then?” I asked Caryl after the virtual me had settled into his chair.
“Well I don’t know, she may be having trouble and I did leave her a note. I don’t know if she didn’t get it and you know how it is when sometimes when you’re logging in and you’re crashing. So I would suggest that we just go ahead and if she comes, she’ll just step into it.” She replied.
“Spirit Dance Company, how did it begin and how long has it been around?” I asked.
“Formally about a year. Our first performance was a year ago last June, so we actually formed a few months before that and got into rehearsal. But it kind of had an evolution. It became the Spirit Dance Company … it originated as Starheart had a few ladies that wanted to dance together and they began to do little programs here and there. And then Star had a … kind of a festival. She and I … we’d been friends all along … she knew my dance background and asked if I would prepare something for the festival. I just chose a few friends and did maybe three dances in this festival and then began to help her and we put on a little show and decided … she decided that it was time that we reformat basically into a more professional production. And because of my background and experience, that began to work ... so it’s been about a year. This is our second big production. We call this three because we had one little one before that. Both star and I work together on this. However I’ve kind of became the director simply because of my background and experience and she is an assist and soloist. So that’s how it started.” She replied.
“An interesting beginning.” I commented.
“And we’ve drawn to us just some very wonderful people … a wonderful cast of about twenty one people including our understudies and it really is a co-creation of all different talents. I mean the fella who does our back grounds is incredible. We have an idea and just turn him loose. That’s basically what we do with every faction of the company ... we encourage individual creation and artistic abilities … and if we see that somebody really has something they really love to do, we encourage them to do just that. So I just tell Rex what we have in mind as far as concept and he comes up with the most fantastic backgrounds.” She said.
“Do you create your own dance animations?” I asked
“We do not do our own animations. We don’t have an animator. We simply shop a lot. We have … I am former dance teacher, ballet dancer myself, but I also dance contemporary and jazz, ballroom western, a little of everything. The only thing I haven’t done is tap, I’ve done Spanish, so my background is wide and I have a very eclectic taste. When it comes to dancing I like lots of different styles so we do not focus on ballet, we simply find those movements that fit ... I have a least 300 animation … Star has more. So we pull from what we have and share.” Caryl replied.
“One of my favorite questions to ask is, how was it that you found your way into second life?”
“Gosh, Star’s I’m sure would be completely different. Mine was is that I had a web site, with a spiritual program in which I did a special kinds of energy healing and there were some people who that used to support me on that … that said you know what you should go to second life and I said what is second life and that’s how it started. They basically brought me here and that time there was a program called mystic academy ... so I literally walked into Second Life as a teacher and a spiritual teacher with that company. I had no idea there was anything going like dancing in second life. As a matter of fact I didn’t even open my account, they came in and opened it up for me, took my real life pictures, built my avatar as close as they could to what they thought was an appropriate look. So that’s how it started … I’ve amended it a little bit since. But that’s how I came here. The dancing was a big surprise.” She responded.
“You hadn’t anticipated there would be dance or live musical performances going on?”
“I had no idea! No idea anything like that existed. It was so much fun when I did find out that the ball room dancing here was not that bad.” Caryl said in reply.
“I do admit that I have two left feet when it comes to dancing in real life. Doing so here is certainly much more pleasurable.” I commented.
“Isn’t it wonderful how everybody can be a pro. I think one of the things that is kind of exciting to me. I’ve had a vast back ground in dance and so has Lunabeam. She’s danced all of her life and so have I. She is the only other member of the company who is also a dancer in real life. What is kind of neat about it is that people who have never danced and cannot dance … some have approached me who are in wheel chairs and would love to be able to dance. They have that opportunity here and participate in something they haven’t had a chance to do.” She replied.
“I have a very good friend in here, she runs Virtual Ability Inc., and deals with physically challenged people who want to explore virtual worlds. One of the things they do comment on when they first come in ... is the ability to experience dance.” I said.
“Sure and it does give you that feeling. It’s not the same … but for me it’s the ability to choreograph. I closed my studio fifteen years ago ... my last studio and I went into writing and put that part of my life aside. But when I got here, gosh it was to fun to do it again.” She said
“Given your dance back ground in real life and here in second life, is there a vast difference in putting together a dance sequence?”
“Of course there’s major differences, number one, in order to function in real world and be able to choreograph you have to be able to do it. In here good choreography is good choreography you have go in search for those animations that are going to connect … give the expression or the feel … the interpretation of the music that you’re looking for. So I still have the same tool box, just different tools in the tool box. I have to find what it is that’s going to work to get that across. In real world its years and years of practice and knowledge and performing to know how to choreograph a particular piece of music … put the right steps together. Here it’s a matter of hunting for those pieces of movement, wouldn’t you agree Lunabeam?” Caryl replied.
“I would have to agree, one of the things that is so amazing … the thing that Caryl brings is where every single beat is choreographed to the animation.” Ms Moonite said.
“Let’s talk a little about the current performance, Celebrating Diversity. It comes in three different sets and sequences?
“Would you like to see them?”  Caryl asked
“Certainly.” I replied.
“What we’re sitting on now is Neon. It started with a song called ‘If Everybody Looked the Same’ … we wanted to give the idea of diversity the importance of accepting people for who they are and so we kind of tried to exemplify that by the costumes and letting everybody choose something. What happened was that it got so primmy that we couldn’t move, so we actually had the costumer put something together that was really unique. This set came about from that concept and the whole section of the show (Neon) actually revolves around that, showing the importance of individual creativity and acceptance. The very last song of the show is ‘Firework’ by Katy Perry, where she talks about the individual fire within each of us. So we turned the idea over to the artist and said build us something we can work with. Of course I have a staff of scripters and builders who help me put the rest of it together. This set is the finale of the show. Let me show you part one.” She said and then paused while she fiddled with the controls to bring out the next set. As it rezzed she continued; “These sets are compliments of our scripter. This is the country part of the show its simply … totally just fun. How would you define it Luna?”
“It’s like a really good party going on here with all the animals interacting … the chickens are really hilarious and the whole sequence makes me smile for sure.” Lunabeam commented.
“Dancing animals and dancing people … it’s just a little bit of country fun. It’s also a music change. It starts out with country music in this sequence which is about twenty minutes and we go to kind of new age or maybe neo classic would be a better way to describe it. The second part of the show is the four elements, it’s a ballet that I created and it has four soloists and four ballet dancers and it is like music from John Tesh and Yanni.” Caryl added.
“Then after the country sequence comes the dance of the four elements?” I asked
“Yes, earth, fire, air and water. The idea of the ballet is that each element has a different aspect … for instance fire can be warming but it can also devour … so each one of the elements goes through a soft  beginning and builds to a real high intensity … then from fire we go to air, which is the dance that Star does. In each one of these transitions there’s like this fog that comes up … its timed so that it gives just enough time so that one set is blocked out and the next set comes in. Water is next and when the fog clears you see the water. We try to make the audience feel like part of the environment. The last one is called the pillar … when each one of the elements are in balance it creates a creative force … it is the basis of all creation. So this set here, all four of the goddesses dance together and the pillar is activated.” Caryl replied.
As she spoke, she cycled through each of the sets for the four elements and I cammed out a bit to admire the artistry that went into creating them. Vibrant with color and textures, they were well designed to support the essential aspect of each element. As the last one came up I asked, “Are the special effects more difficult to coordinate in second life?”
“You know what’s really cool about it, almost anything you can think of in Second Life you can do it. In real life you are limited by your stage by the tools you have to work with … you certainly couldn’t have the pyrotechnics that goes on in Neon. It has a light show at the end ... a two minute light show. You would blow up the stage. Like how many times have you had an actual creek running through your set or build this kind of thing on a real stage … you can’t. So here, we have an opportunity to create something quite beautiful. “She replied.
“How’s the audience’s reaction been to Celebrate Diversity, have they been receptive?” I asked.
“The very first time we did the show with our side by side SIMs … this one that holds the stage is wholly dedicated to the dancers during a performance. We had eighty people across from the stage on the other SIM and very nearly crashed it. So we have limited it to fifty … and so we don’t take more than fifty people … we don’t sell it but using theater terminology we sell out every time.” She replied.
“That’s a pretty good size crowd by Second Life standards.” I commented.
“I have to tell you something that is kind of exciting. Last performance and Luna will tell about this … it was just amazing … at the end of the performance I looked out there at the audience and they didn’t move. That audience sat there for twenty to thirty minutes ... they were in awe, they did not want to leave. It was the strangest thing wasn’t it Luna.” Caryl said.
“Yeah ... it’s definitely a journey for sure. You start off laughing with the country scene and then you’re just taken away with the scenes and the dancing of the four elements … and then Neon and the fireworks. It just blows you away.” Lunabeam said.
“So by the time it’s finished … you just want to go again!” Caryl added.
“I’ve spoken to several performers in Second Life, musicians, theatrical and dancers who’ve also performed in real life and they tell me that while there are similarities there are also differences, like you don’t always get the audiences immediate reaction.”  I commented.
“I would say just the opposite, they do it electronically. There is an applause track in the music at the end of each song … so it also gives the audience the feel of what would normally happen and they applaud into the chat lines … I don’t feel that way at all, especially when they stand up for twenty – thirty minutes afterwards …  you know that they loved it.” Caryl replied.
“When you’re doing the performances is it tiring to be on the stage? Do you feel the stress of performing before an audience?”
“You know that’s another thing that is different about our company. It is a journey because none of these people outside of Luna has danced professionally or been in a professional show. So their learning something completely new as well as the fact you have to learn the technology of Second Life … you use your computer and all those kinds of things. So there is a stress level and you can only do it if you stay centered and cool. There are certain things you gotta do … a notecard to remember where you have to be at … then you have to be prepared to crash … and what do you do when you come back. All of these things have to be taken into consideration … and so yes, it is a stressful time. But you know, I’m really proud of this cast they’ve some so far and they don’t … I can’t remember anyone getting panicky this time … Luna, did you?” Ms Meredith said.
“No not at all, they were really very professional. There is quite a lot of things to do in terms of the different HUDs for the dances and the costumes for their parts. When lots of people are trying to get on and off the same time … but we rehearse really well, Caryl lead us brilliantly … and everybody does it together.” Lunabeam replied.
“I start about thirty minutes before a show, to do a little meditation to help people get centered and grounded ... get there mind focused on exactly where they need to be.” Caryl added.
“How long does it take to prepare for a new show … from when you get the idea to the first production?
“This one took five months.” She said in reply.
“That’s almost like a real life show isn’t it?”
“Almost … when you consider. I have an artist, scripter, all the dancers … I choreograph most of it but there are individuals who also choreograph. The music has to be found and prepared. The same things you do in a real life show are pretty much the same kinds of things you have to do here. So it’s a long process. We will be doing a different show on December 17th which is going to be a gala and we will have many of the favorite pieces that we’ve done in the last year and half in that show.” She responded.
“Have you seen any of the other Second Life dance troupes? La Performance and Pixel ballet are two that come to mind.”
“I’ve seen a few. I’m basically more focused on what we’re doing and I don’t really go around to the other ones that much. We didn’t tailor anything we do after what anybody else does. We simply had an idea of what to do … what we would like to do and people that we needed were just drawn to us. We didn’t go out looking for anyone. I’ve seen both and our concept is very different. We perform for the audience and our goal is to make them feel part of it… we want to pull them into not only the music, the visual of everything we’re doing. Pixel Ballet is very classical … and it sticks pretty much to a classical form of dance, of which I am trained in. I’ve actually performed most of my professional dance career as a classical ballet dancer. However it’s not what I want to do here. I think that there’s great merit in the different styles … dancing is about joy … it’s about celebration and so I like include all kinds of styles. For instance this one goes to country, semi-classical to what I would call street dancing all in one show.” She replied.
“This is definitely different then what I’d done before. The group I was in wasn’t as big as this. But I have been to quite a few performances. It’s all been very good, but I feel this has you on a whole journey and really draws you in.” Ms Moonite added.
“After this one, are there plans for another show?”
“Of course … “She replied and then laughed. “Like I said after this show, the last performance is October 1st and then through the rest of October and November we will be preparing for the gala … and then we’ll re-group. We’ll have a meeting and we’ll talk about what do you want to do … collect ideas and then we’ll focus on what we think will work for us. Star and I are of course the last word, but we want input from the group … what do they want to dance.
Just then Starheart, who had finally been successful at logging into Second Life arrived and took a seat to my left. We continued our chat for several more minutes and …
“Nazz … we’re about to begin.” I heard Caryl voice through my headset as she called my attention back to the stage and away from my notes. She told me that the performance of the four elements dance sequence was about to bein. ‘You’ve got the music queued in your player don’t you?” She asked.
I replied that I did and waited on her signal which arrived seconds later. I clicked the start and as the music began I watched as the goddess earth made her way onto the stage. Her avatar began to dance in harmony to the music streaming into my headset. I sat transfixed for the next thirty minutes or so while first the goddess of earth, then fire, then air and finally water completed their solos. Then all assembled for the dance of the four goddesses, their animations synchronized to the beat of the music. Each movement complimented the sound I heard. As the last note played I clicked the “Stand up” button and leapt from my chair to my virtual feet. I immediately typed out the chat line:
“Nazz Lane jumps to his feet whistling loudly and applauding madly”

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