One look at our newly launched video experience, and you can tell you’re in for something special. Created by director Theo Stanely, choreographer Cynthia Stanley, and in collaboration with the Martha Graham Dance Company, the filmed dance piece has been rolled out in formats designed for virtual reality viewing, 360-degree video, standard video, and an immersive in-store VR experience hosted by Samsung Gear VR powered by Oculus at our Madison Avenue, Downtown, and Beverly Hills flagships. Even given all that, there’s still more to the project than meets the eye. So we recently asked the Stanleys—yes, they’re a husband-wife duo—to take us behind the creation of the piece. Check out the video, then scroll on for a peek behind the curtain of this incredible undertaking.

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Choreographer Cynthia Stanley and director Theo Stanley, on set as they film the performance.

“There are many applications for VR as an experience, because it’s so effective on the brain,“ Theo shares of what sparked his interest in virtual reality. Even seeing it being utilized in the world of dance, though, he didn’t think it was living up to its full potential. “We saw the technology giving audiences a privileged point of view, like being brought to the front row or even taking them onstage within a dance piece, but the dances themselves were still being designed for a frontal stage audience relationship. There was the unique opportunity to consciously design a piece with the idea of an audience of one at the center, at the core of an immersive experience.”

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The special camera, with multiple lenses pointed in every direction, takes the place of the viewer in the center of the dance piece.

To make that immersive experience a reality, the dance had to be taken from a forward-facing presentational style and turned inward upon itself. The special 360-degree camera was placed at the center of the performance space, and all choreography was then focused toward that central point—something that is rarely, if ever, done in dance. It was just that challenge that intrigued Cynthia as she began the arduous process of developing the choreography over the course of more than a year.

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An overhead view of the space as Cynthia works with the members of the chorus. Note the camera in the center of the circle the dancers form.

“What most excited me was the personal, connective element of the virtual reality experience,” she tells us. “This audience of one becomes the central character, and I wanted to begin and end with the feeling that dancers were in direct communication with that audience member, so that they were initiated into the piece. That was really important to me—especially with as close as the dancers feel to the viewer—that we went right at it with the dancers looking directly at the audience member.”

There was also a deeper meaning behind this inward-facing style: according to Theo, the central theme to the choreographic exploration Martha Graham is known for is the idea of exploring the inner landscape of the human experience. “We envisioned this interior world where the narrative was taking place, and we wanted it to be a more conceptual than literal space,” he says. “It was about creating a world that functions as a space of allegory and metaphor.”

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Cynthia walks the dancers through their choreography within the space.

And as complicated as the extended metaphor became as the piece grew and developed, for Cynthia, the most difficult part became knowing that large portions of the piece may not be seen by any one viewer having the virtual reality experience. “You are not designing for everything to be seen at once,” Cynthia says of knowing that important moments may be missed if a viewer were focused elsewhere. “There is a process of letting go and accepting that every audience member will truly have their own unique experience, depending on where they choose to look. Sometimes it will align with our intent, but sometimes they will choose to focus elsewhere, and it’s all part of the experience. There is no wrong way.”

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Theo directs the principal dancers as he views the shot through his handheld monitor.

That being said, Theo adds that, with the variety of formats being produced, they did want to ensure that the narrative still came across. “It was important for us to create the 2D, standard video version because it allowed us to convey our narrative thread in a more potent way,” he says. “It allowed us to direct the viewer’s attention where we’d like them to look in order to tell the story.”

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Shots from each of the camera’s lenses are digitally stitched together to create one seamless 360-degree view.

But even while in the process of filming, it became clear that virtual reality and 360-degree version left a wide berth for views to create their own experience. “We had a hilarious moment at the shoot where we’d have to duck behind a curtain at the edge of the stage as the dancers began their movement so that we weren’t on camera,” Cynthia shares. “We were watching the performance on an iPad, and Matthew (Barneys Creative Director Matthew Mazzucca) was watching and saying how incredible it was. But he was looking someplace completely different than Theo and I! We had to physically turn him to see where the bulk of the movement taking place during that moment. It was eye opening for us, because he was enjoying it, but that’s what’s going to happen. Hopefully, people will go back, watch it again, and choose to focus in on something else.”

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Clothing-inspired sculptures by designer Craig Green play an integral role in the piece.
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The piece was also shot in a standard 2D format for viewing in traditional video players. This format also allowed the Stanleys to create a more controlled edit, guiding the viewer through their narrative thread by steering their focal point.

One large area that’s sure to draw viewers’ attention is the wardrobe featured throughout the film. With the four principal dancers decked out in designs by The Row, Prabal Gurung, Loewe, and Rick Owens, in addition to the Craig Green sculptural pieces and garments worn by the members of the chorus, there’s plenty to draw the eye. “A lot of thought went into the choice of the garments for the four principal dancers, because the clothing is part of what brings them to life,” Theo says. “It was a great collaboration with Barneys to find the pieces that framed how they would move.”

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Members of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Charlotte Landreau and Lloyd Knight represent archetypes of Ethereal and The Cleaner.
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At one point in the piece, Landreau flies into the air via a harness and rig.

Noting that pieces were selected that weren’t restrictive and that revealed visually interesting part of the body, Cynthia goes into more detail about each of the looks. “The Row dress took special handling due to its length, and Charlotte was able to incorporate it into her movement effortlessly. The Prabal dress fit Xin Ying and her movement as if it were made specifically for her, and the Loewe pieces beautifully exhibited Lloyd’s incredible athleticism. I felt like Ben’s character was taken to the next level once he got into the Rick Owens for the first time. We had been crossing our fingers for a Rick Owens piece, as we knew it would be spot-on for his character.”

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Martha Graham pricipal dancer Ben Schultz embodies the idea of Power while wearing pieces from Rick Owens.
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The character of Possessed is brought to life by dancer Xin Ping, wearing Prabal Gurung. Theo and Cynthia look on as she flawlessly executes her choreography.

This attention to the details of the fashion didn’t stop with the principal dancers, but also extended to the eight chorus members. “Our vision was to dress the chorus in a homogeneous way, but when we landed on Craig Green garments that were both homogenous and individual, it became much more interesting,” Cynthia tells us. “It took some pretty masterful tailors to customize the Craig Green men’s pieces for some petite women, and the opportunity to incorporate the sculptural elements added such a meaningful layer.”

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The members of the chorus—all former Martha Graham company members and smeared into their 70s—feel cohesive yet individual in designs by Craig Green.

That multi-layered element suffuses various aspects of the piece, but for Cynthia, that’s part of the point. “I always want someone to have an honest connection when they watch one of my pieces—I want them to feel that we’re having an actual conversation,” she says. “I want them to be fascinated and curious enough to watch it and ask themselves questions and try to interpret it themselves. Hopefully there’s something there that they respond to.”

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