The Houston Symphony Goes Digital with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring 3D

No one has ever accused the Symphony of living in the past...especially with the 3D version of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."
No one has ever accused the Symphony of living in the past...especially with the 3D version of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring." Photo Credit: Klaus Obermaier, Courtesy of the Houston Symphony
From the hallowed music of the 1600s to Broadway, the Houston Symphony knows how to keep art interesting. This weekend will prove no different as it offers its last classical subscription performance for the 2017-18 season with Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring - this time in digital form.

The team has ganged up with Klaus Obermaier and Ars Electronica Futurelab for an innovative and visual performance May 18 - 19 at 8 p.m. and May 20 at 2:30 p.m. that is just as much a spectacle for the eyes as it is for the ears.

The Rite of Spring 3D is an ambitious 21st-century staging of the infamous ballet that uses real-time technology to turn the movements of a solo dancer into virtual objects. With the help of stereoscopic cameras and 3D glasses, audiences will be immersed in a highly-visual concert experience that combines dance and digital art while matching the power and impact of this highly-controversial work.

Obermaier has taken meticulous care to translate this piece into something that a modern audience can appreciate.

"This piece is highly interactive. We’re not using film. We’re using lights and real-time generated visuals. They are generated in the moment when they are performed by the dancer," he said. "The dancer creates a virtual world, and in this virtual world, she will interact from within. We see the real dancer on stage and what she is doing, and we see her in this virtual space she creates with this virtual environment."

Much like watching The Matrix, it's all very meta, and only watching it in person will make it come together. Maybe this video will help bridge the gap:

To understand the importance of this piece, one must dive back more than 100 years to grasp the drama surrounding this work. It was originally performed along with a ballet accompaniment. The juxtaposition of symphony and ballet was shocking and created quite the riot. The crowd was so unaccustomed to both dance and music being performed at the same spot, they broke into a fight — one side deeply believing in the marriage of the two art forms, the other side wanting to the two art forms to stay separate despite their common threads.

And no one thought the classical arts brought drama. Lest we forget, Stravinsky was a visionary who ruffled more than his fair share of feathers in his time. His work was meant for the forward-thinking audience, and that's where Obermaier comes into play.

Obermaier has updated the performance for a new generation while still retaining the flair and panache of Stravinsky's original intent. He's kept the dancer per tradition, but he's also upgraded her with a 3D component to bring her up to speed.

Several stereoscopic cameras – which simulate human binocular vision – will capture the onstage movements of acclaimed contemporary dancer Yuka Oishi as she responds to Stravinsky’s wild music onstage, which will also feed into a complex computer system. This system will in turn generate and project 3D animations onto a giant screen suspended above the orchestra.

Yuka Oishi will handle the task of dancing. She's the epitome of the bionic woman, balancing the delicate act of being both a trained dancer as well as working with current technology to present the show.

Oishi isn't the only one splitting her attention in two directions. It's one-part Oishi, two-parts symphony instruments. The orchestra’s sounds – captured through microphones that are clipped to players’ instruments – are integrated in the interactive process and relayed into the computer system, helping to influence the form, movement and complexity of the 3D projections of the virtual space and those of the dancer, using the human body and movements of Oishi as a connection between reality and virtuality.

"It’s all done with very sophisticated algorithms. The dancer wears colored clothes, and the cameras follow the colors. It's sort of like using a blue screen," Obermaier said. "We are able to detect where is her hand, where is her head, how fast is she moving and what is she touching."

The end result is that the person dancing on the side of the stage ends up creating a virtual world and the audience member gets to be a guest into that world. Obermaier reiterates that the concert and visuals stretch beyond the screen. It becomes more of an immersive environment.

"It will be exciting. The main thing is that the audience is able to switch the view between the dancer, the orchestra and the virtual world. You don’t see a screen, you see a space," he said.

Just in case that wasn't enough to whet your palate, the concert brings with it a few more morsels of delight. World-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax joins the symphony for some lively chamber music, and he offers the perfect contrast to Stravinsky’s wild score with Mozart’s refined Piano Concerto No. 27, his final work in the genre.

The concert starts 8 p.m. Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19 as well as 2:30 Sunday May 20 at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. Visit or call 713-224-7275 for more info. Tickets range $23 - $145.
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Sam Byrd is a freelance contributor to the Houston Press who loves to take in all of Houston’s sights, sounds, food and fun. He also loves helping others to discover Houston’s rich culture.
Contact: Sam Byrd