Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Conversation with Ballet Pixelle Artistic Director Inarra Saarinen

Ballet Pixelle Artistic Director Inarra Saarinen

A decent sized crowd had arrived before I did at the site of Ballet Pixelle's performance of "Immortal Waltz". It was a Sunday evening and this was the second in a series of several performances planned by the troupe. I pointed, clicked, sat and was presented with a both a playbill for the performance and instructions on the environment set up. It took me moments to complete the latter and I decided to save the former for a review at a later time. I scanned the chat lines which were fairly steady and found the conversation to be both amiable and anticipatory in nature. With a glance at the clock I realized that the time neared for the curtain to rise and I suddenly had an expectation of lights flickering and the soft tone of chimes to let me know that the performance was about to begin. Instead it was a chat line from the master of ceremonies which appeared in the lower left corner of my screen.
MC: Now, it is my great honor to introduce Ballet Pixelle's artistic director, Ms. Inarra Saarinen.
A round of textual applause came from the assembled audience and Ms Sarrinen took center stage.
Inarra Saarinen: My sincere greetings and welcome to our view of the immortal dance of life. Please enjoy. Sit back, relax, and ponder. And enjoy … or else!
With her brief opening complete, she ported out and the master of ceremonies proceeded with an introduction to the “Immortal Waltz.” 
MC: What is life?  Isn't it movement? A constant cycle of movement, no movement, movement … through the ages.  Dance to dance! In Act 1 we see an old lady sitting in a graveyard type watching herself lying in a grave.  Suddenly, the dead lady vanishes and the living one begins moving.   Then other dead people begin to appear and move bringing themselves to life.
The curtain had risen and I’d restarted the music stream as the MC had instructed the audience to do after the introduction. I did and then settled back in both my virtual and real chairs to enjoy the performance. There were four acts to the “Immortal Waltz” and the MC introduced each along with instructions to re-start the stream. There were no scene changes and I found the set well designed, the musical selection delightful and the choreographed movement of the dancers a joy to view. The performance lasted roughly forty-five minutes and the audience showed their appreciation at the end of each act and the finale with a steady flow of textual applause. It had been a few years since the last time I had seen the troupe perform and as then I enjoyed this evening’s performance. With the last curtain call, the MC invited us all to; “Please stay for a Question and Answer session with the cast and crew.” I did briefly and before my departure I message Inarra and we made arrangements to meet. With her schedule and mine, though we weren’t able connect until a few weeks later.
Her instant message and a TP offer arrived at nearly the same time and I took the offered ride over for our meeting. After a brief tussle with bann lines, I arrived in the office to find her seated at an informal conference area. I took a chair next to her and we began.
Nazz Lane: I'm glad we finally had the chance to meet. I've been a fan of Ballet Pixelle for some time. If you’re ready to start we can begin.

Inarra Saarinen: That's wonderful to hear. Yes, I’m ready.

Nazz Lane: How was it that you found your way into second life?

Inarra Saarinen: I heard about furries and this world … that it actually had an economy, back in 2006. Within a short time after I had logged in, I realized I could move, and I built an outdoor theatre … flowers gave out the programs.

Nazz Lane: Are you in the entertainment field in your first life then?

Inarra Saarinen: Yes. I have been a dancer and choreographer my whole life … along with a few other careers -- mostly in technology.

Nazz Lane: So your experiences here are a combination of both dance and choreography along with technology?

Inarra Saarinen: Yes, a perfect blend. So it lends itself to my goal … to explore and investigate the interaction and intersection of physical and virtual dance and blended realities.

Nazz Lane: When was the first scheduled performance by the troupe?

Inarra Saarinen: February 7th in 2007. The company was formed and rehearsing in 2006.

Nazz Lane: Did you find it easy to fill out the members of the troupe?

Inarra Saarinen: It was harder at first than it is now.  There are a lot of demands on being a dancer or crew member in Ballet Pixelle. But with our success has come education and expectation ... and we have learned so much. Now we are overwhelmed with requests to audition.

Nazz Lane: What would be the most important lesson learned?

Inarra Saarinen: Emphasize commitment and time required … this is a professional company in Second Life and real life.  We work to the utmost of our capacities.  That does not come easily.  Dancers and crew often work up to 20 hours per week.  It takes 4 months to create a show. I do this full time.

Nazz Lane: Four month to pull together a production. Is that from concept to the first performance?

Inarra Saarinen: Yes, although I have a lot of ideas always waiting, that is four months from having the idea chosen and conceptualized.

Nazz Lane: Is that comparable to doing something similar in real life?

Inarra Saarinen: Yes it is, although of course that depends on the kind of show and its extent.

Nazz Lane: That would be understandable. What would you characterize as the most challenging aspect of producing a show?

Inarra Saarinen: That’s a tough one. Because I am both the choreographer/artistic director, and director/producer. I have a freighter that I am trying to keep on course. We work with professional composers and set designers now.  So the creative team is now composed of professionals collaborating. The fact that everyone is not doing this full-time can be tough … and of course, now that the dancers are educated to the facts of life … of change … that the creation moves and changes as the concept changes and solidifies in my mind.

Nazz Lane: So as the concept evolves with the first sequences developed along with sets and music, things change and routines are added and or scrapped?

Inarra Saarinen: Yes. I am always telling a story and what I am communicating sometimes is not clear to me at the beginning.  Then I come to terms with what I am really trying to say.  Then on the more pragmatic level, some steps don't work or are awkward or do not transition or do not add to the story … and the same with the music and the sets and the costumes.

Nazz Lane: What kind of things provide the inspiration for your ideas?

Inarra Saarinen: Travels! I am constantly travelling and love cultures and languages. I love trying to communicate with people of different lands and to understand their beliefs and structures. I am also spiritually involved in many countries.  Those stories, and how they are "seen" by me, are often found in my ballets. "Living Goddess" is about a real child living goddess who is worshipped in Nepal who I met while in Kathmandu, for example. "Shuzenji" is a real place in Japan but the story was one I created; I live in Tokyo and Hawai’i.

Nazz Lane: What about the current show, "Immortal Waltz" was it a place that inspired it?

Inarra Saarinen: That was one of the few where I think the idea came first, but the set reminds me of some of the fascination with places and feelings I had as a young girl.

Nazz Lane: When you had told me the name of the production, I immediately thought of Vienna. I was surprised at first by the opening in a cemetery.

Inarra Saarinen: Aah … well surprise is good.

Nazz Lane: Yes it can be and I did enjoy the performance.

Inarra Saarinen: Thank you. We are very glad you did!  We do it for our audience.

Nazz Lane: I know that IBM has reduced their Second Life presence, is this still an IBM SIM?

Inarra Saarinen: No, this has always been our space.  The theatre that was sponsored by IBM that we had was IBM 9 and IBM 10 SIM’s. So this is our home theatre.  At one point we had the two locations, now we are back at this one. We have auxiliary storage space and a creative development space in another SIM as well.
Nazz Lane: It was most gracious of IBM to support the arts in Second Life and in particular the ballet. Are there other real life companies who've provided support now or in the past?

Inarra Saarinen: No, not now.  IBM was our big sponsor and we are very grateful to them.  We worked very well together. Now we depend on a few anonymous donors ...  very few.

Nazz Lane: After Immortal Waltz, what comes next for the troupe?

Inarra Saarinen: We will be doing our famous "The Nut" for the holidays starting at the end of November. It is the only ballet we do that is not completely original with original music … we pride ourselves on always presenting original ballets. We call it "The Nut" because it contains only the essence, the dancing, of the Nutcracker Ballet … and while the dancers are rehearsing and performing that I am working on the next new ballet. You'll have to join the group or subscription list to get the news on that one.

Nazz Lane: Have you explored doing this in any other virtual world?

Inarra Saarinen: A little.  At one point we looked at other virtual worlds, however, they really did not have the sophistication of Second Life.  One of the reasons why we renamed the Company Ballet Pixelle … it was Second Life Ballet … was to allow the change to other worlds. It was also when Linden Labs was concerned with branding, but we wanted to broaden our name and image. Also, as I think you know, we do not use "poseballs" or "HUDs" or synchronizing scripts or any artificial devices. The dancers truly dance with each other and the music. That is difficult to get in other worlds as I know it now … but let me know if you know any!

Nazz Lane: I recall hearing that the dancers create their own animations ... and I will if I see any virtual worlds that would be capable of supporting and sustaining something as you have here.

Inarra Saarinen: I create all of the animations for Ballet Pixelle. I use various software packages outside of Second Life, import them, and then choreograph using them as "words" into "sentences" … those are "gestures" in Second Life-speak. Then the dancers have a taxonomy system for labeling them and dance with each other and the music.

Nazz Lane: So the creating the animations is the essence … the combination of your experience as a dancer and choreographer with the "technologist"?

Inarra Saarinen: Exactly … one of the reasons our animations are so correct is that I spent years learning and teaching classical ballet.  So they are technically correct. Or that is the aim … also, Second Life allows me to work past limits of gravity and of body joints so I am able to turn limbs in different directions than they are capable of … or to keep turns spinning endlessly. Those are some of the things that I am exploring -- but all to tell a story

Nazz Lane: And artistically presented in the performances I’ve seen.

Inarra Saarinen: Thank you … you'll see heads that rotate and arms that twist to give an eerily non-human appearance in "Immortal Waltz" for example. I often sound more confident than I feel when developing a work. I go through a lot of sleepless nights believe it or not.

Nazz Lane: I can understand that ... the spell one succumbs to when creating.

Inarra Saarinen: Exactly! And these voices in my head!  They just drone on and on...

Nazz Lane: I know it’s getting late for you. Do you have any closing comments or thoughts you'd like to share with my readers?

Inarra Saarinen: I hope that everyone can come to see us … We have a Euro-friendly performance time now,  Wednesdays at 2pm and Sundays at 5pm … and remember, if you have the chance to sit it out or dance … Dance! Dance with us into the digital future ... we really do it all for you, so join us in some magic.

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