Thirty minutes in VR: Le Bal de Paris by Blanca Li

Barbican Theatre, London
April 1, 2022

Blanca Li’s Le Bal de Paris is an amazing experience. The audacity and scope of Li’s vision coupled with the visual creations of director Vincent Chazal are breath-taking. For half an hour you can enjoy the oligarch lifestyle. You are invited to fabulous parties, trips on luxury yachts, a visit to a private country estate and a night club finale. All this for the price of a theatre ticket!

Virtual Reality technology, courtesy of BackLight, reaches a highpoint with seamless transitions from one scene to the next and enables the audience, in groups of around ten people, to interact with the two live performers. Geared up with computer backpacks, helmets with VR glasses and headphones and wired-up ankles and wrists we became full body avatars dressed in haute couture, courtesy of Chanel.

Chanel was the obvious choice as a name associated with ballet and avant-garde art since the time of Diaghilev, and we had a choice of suits and dresses all fitted perfectly to our perfect forms. The headdresses offered a range of animal heads, zebras, rabbits and stags enabling a free range of diversity.

In the extravagant ballroom, staircases wind up and down with Escher flexibility and scores of dancers and musicians perform with Busby Berkley precision. The boat trip features mermaids and in the manicured gardens you can smell the flowers. A train journey transports us back to Paris and the inevitable Cancan where the couple finally decide they are meant for each other.

Unfortunately, the narrative didn’t match up to the innovation of the settings, seeming rather to borrow from Lehar’s Merry Widow and despite the brilliance of the technology, real emotion or a human touch is not possible in the spasmodic moves of the two dancers. These are early days, and we’ll probably look back on these experiments much as we do silent films with their unnatural acting and contrived emotions. However, go for the experience. This could be the ultimate lockdown antidote!