Ballet students leap into new technology

A new ballet that links dancers in Toronto and dancers in Amsterdam via livestream is part of a curriculum Canada's National Ballet School has worked into the Assemblée Internationale, a week-long conference in Toronto with student dancers from 18 ballet schools around the world.

Students from 18 international schools perform together at Toronto conference

Students in Amsterdam and Toronto in livestream performance. 1:20

A new ballet that links dancers in Toronto and dancers in Amsterdam via livestream is part of a curriculum Canada's National Ballet School has worked into the Assemblée Internationale, a week-long conference in Toronto with student dancers from 18 ballet schools around the world.

To prepare the students to perform the new work, called Stream, NBS instructor Shaun Amyot is trying to teach his class to improvise, not a common discipline in the world of classical dance.

While a screen behind them shows dancers in Amsterdam performing, student dancers in Toronto will be required to improvise, reacting to what they see and the music.

"When you improvise, it has to have a lot of energy and it will take off," Amyot tells the 32 students in a NBS studio.

Among the 16 and 17-year-olds in Amyot’s class are dancers from London, Paris, Sydney, Havana, Copenhagen and New York.   Assemblée Internationale is an ambitious conference that involves 72 Canadian students and 109 from international schools and cost $500,000 — all of it fund-raised by the NBS.

"Being involved in any new creation at a young age is a huge opportunity for them because much of their professional careers they will be working with new choreographers," Amyot, a choreographer and member of the artistic faculty at NBS said of the new work.

"So being involved in a project that involves several aspects of technology from the ground up — it broadens their horizons. It requires them to be in the moment, really present, and intensifies their concentration, because I will ask them to physically react to what they see on the screen in the moment."

Amyot is collaborating with Amsterdam-based choreographer Michael Schumacher to create Stream, and the Dutch National Ballet Academy will dance the work in studio in Amsterdam to fill the screen, which is proportioned to the height of the human body.

A dancer from the Houston Ballet Academy rehearses for the classical repertory piece. (Joseph Hammond/NBS)

Dancers in Toronto will sometimes be in front of the screen, sometimes behind it for a translucent effect, with the performers in Amsterdam posing a "question" physically and the students in Toronto creating an answer.  Then, the piece finishes with all the dancers on stage, moving in unison with those on screen.

It’s a challenge to perform and to teach. Amyot sent DVDs of the choreographed parts of Stream to the participating schools and he has students from the Toronto school coaching and leading their international colleagues in the improvisation.

Assemblée Internationale is a collaborative conference, bringing students together to form bonds and learn about working together just as they are thinking about where they will be dancing professionally in a few years. And wherever that is, technology will be central to what they do.

Graduates now in 60 countries

NBS associate director John Dalrymple said the school currently has graduates dancing in 60 companies around the world and realizes it must prepare its students for international careers. 

"As organizations grapple with how to integrate new technologies into how to they connect with their audiences, as the artistic drivers of that culture, they must be well-versed in new technology," Dalrymple said.

The Canadian school has frequent exchange programs with many of the 18 schools participating in AI. In 2009, it held its first AI in Toronto and saw how students at that event forged ties that helped them later in life.

"The dance world is very small," Amyot said. "To students who haven’t had a lot of exposure to different styles and cultures, it can seem overwhelming. But here they see the commonalities are stronger than the differences."

In studios throughout the Toronto ballet school, instructors from New Zealand and San Francisco and Barcelona worked all week with mixed groups of students, getting them used to those different approaches.

Ryerson students involved

Stream is just one of the new technology projects. Students from Ryerson University have been enlisted to train cameras on the dance students as they practise in studio and create webcasts of the classes that are streamed on the NBS website.

A group of young student filmmakers is following four of the ballet students throughout the week, with an assignment to create a documentary somewhere down the road.

And Montreal company Haivision is pioneering new technology that will livestream without any time lag, so the dancers in Toronto and those in Amsterdam can react to one another and hear the music in real time as they dance Stream.

Cheryl Belkin-Epstein, who teaches the history of ballet, says new technologies have enormous potential to engage audiences in future.

Creative challenge

"Livestreaming gives people a chance to access [dance] in a non-threatening way and the ballet is better for it," she said.

The students now in training are the internet generation, already alert to the potential of YouTube, cellphones and Twitter, so at the end of the week, they will be left with a creative challenge.

"NBS will make a call to action for the students who have come to AI to over the next year create a new collaborative dance work and performance in a non-traditional venue – and present it on the anniversary [of the conference] in 2014," she said.

It could be a YouTube dance performance, shot by film students from a partner university. It could be an international collaboration, with students in Rotterdam creating choreography for dancers from Melbourne.  The challenge is wide open, but hits on the two themes of the conference — collaboration and technology.

The AI wraps up this weekend with each of the ballet schools performing a work from their repertoire for their newfound friends and two pieces of student choreography performed by mixed cast. Stream is to be performed Friday and Saturday.