No director is listed in the credits for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s new streaming productions — with good reason. For the first time, viewers are in control: as Jean-Christophe Maillot’s ballets Dov’e la luna and Core meu unfold, the option is offered to switch back and forth between four different camera angles. Some viewers follow specific dancers as they get ready backstage before the show, push themselves to the limit onstage and exit, panting; others provide a more conventional view of the entire stage, or a closer look at the musicians.
For the performing arts, hit especially hard by Covid-related restrictions in many countries, multi-view technology may provide a solution to a key issue: how to retain the audience’s attention when they are unable to experience productions in person. The initial response of many in the sector was to release as much regular video content as possible. Nearly a year into the pandemic, however, streaming fatigue has set in for many devoted dance or theatre fans.
Editing decisions, especially, can feel like a nuisance when it comes to watching a filmed version of a stage production. In December, during a live stream produced by Dutch National Ballet, I found myself frustrated by the director’s choice to cut to the orchestra at inopportune times.
“It is the agency factor,” says Linda Uruchurtu, a London-based data scientist who was a frequent ballet- and opera-goer before the pandemic. “When you go to a live performance, you can choose what you want to see. With streaming, you don’t get that.”
Multi-view was initially developed for sports broadcasting, as a way for viewers to watch several games or athletes at once in split-screen mode. Maillot, the director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, drew inspiration from Formula One to develop the company’s video platform, with the help of two former dancers who now run a technology company. “I was so bored during the second French lockdown that I would watch [motor] races, and I realised that on sports channels, you could choose to be inside Fernando Alonso’s car,” he says. “I wondered if we could offer the same immersion with a show.”
In the performing arts field, South Korean pop music — K-pop — has led the way in testing that theory. BTS, arguably the world’s most popular boy band, staged two enormous concerts with multi-camera options in 2020. For the second, in October, more than 900,000 people tuned in from 190 countries and territories.
“I was intrigued to see how much that would alter the experience,” says Uruchurtu, who started following K-pop during the first lockdown in the UK. She was blown away by the level of engagement on offer. In addition to the different camera angles, viewers could react via virtual “lighting sticks” and cheers, which in turn lit up a connected wall behind the BTS band members as they performed live.
For Kiswe, the American video technology company behind BTS’s virtual set-up, the event showed that the demand is there for interactive concerts and performances. The virtual audience contributed 310m “cheers” during the October concert, and the participation rate — the number of viewers who switched back and forth between different camera views — was over 90 per cent, according to Kiswe’s CEO, Mike Schabel. “The media industry classically says: ‘We’re going to talk to you, you sit down and listen.’ But you have this new, emerging audience that wants to be recognised, to engage with content.”
Maillot also sees it as a long-term shift. “The process of developing these tools has been accelerated by the pandemic, but to me it’s also tied to a change in social behaviour. People now put themselves on display all the time: they need to publicly say what they think, to rate the restaurant they go to,” the choreographer says.
The key, Schabel believes, is to tailor the experience to the target audience, as opera-goers are unlikely to want to shake electronic light sticks. Uruchurtu believes other art forms can learn from the way K-pop has taken cues from its fan base. “Ballet is usually marketed under huge pressure to try to reach new audiences,” she says. As a result, content isn’t necessarily designed with connoisseurs in mind — whereas the most passionate fans can drive engagement. “What some of these K-pop groups have managed to do is to capitalise on understanding who their audience is, and just feeding them more,” Uruchurtu adds.
As I watched Maillot’s Core meu, a work that brings together dozens of dancers and musicians onstage, the multiple angles clearly enhanced the experience, and captured something of the three-dimensionality of live performance. It was possible to lose yourself in the performers’ ebullience up close without losing sight of the larger choreographic patterns, which were captured from above by one camera.
And the possibilities are endless. For plays, cameras could follow individual characters even when they’re in the background of a scene. Opera fans might enjoy keeping an eye on the conductor throughout a production, and experimenting with the sound as recorded in different parts of the auditorium.
Still, crafting a smooth multi-view experience isn’t easy, as Schabel points out: “You have to deliver it down to the consumer in a way that is really compelling for them, to get over their network problems and all their device differences.” In the case of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s platform, there was a noticeable lag every time I tried to enlarge a different view, with two different computers. For viewers used to the fluidity of modern streaming platforms, even small glitches might be a turn-off.
Yet the cost isn’t necessarily prohibitive for art forms with smaller audiences than K-pop. Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s production budget for four multi-view productions (some of which have yet to be released) was around £31,000, with an additional £4,500 per month in hosting fees. In the case of Kiswe, the use of cloud-based technology means reduced costs on the ground. “For the BTS concert, I might have had one or two people in Seoul, and then we had 20 people working everywhere around the world,” Schabel says. “It can also be scaled up or down. This doesn't have to be something that is limited to an audience of 200,000.”
The rise of more sophisticated streaming technology may also provide an answer to a long-term issue for artists and companies who tour intensively: the environmental cost of flying around the world for short engagements. “I wonder if it still makes sense to take 80 people to Tokyo for just four shows,” Maillot says. “Maybe this is the way for artists to reconnect with the audience.”