Return to country meets VR in Via Alice

Take one of the oldest forms of expression and one of the newest entertainment platforms, and use both to tell the story of an epic journey of discovery. The viewer must deploy his or her own imagination to make sense of this modern-day road trip into ancient Australia, relayed to viewers through dance and the latest in twenty-first century VR technology.

Via Alice is a virtual reality opera which recently had its world premiere at Redfern’s Carriageworks and also ran from August 31 to September 3 at the Red Bull Music Academy Weekender Sydney festival, featuring a free VR experience enabled by Samsung Gear VR.

The film shows American rapper and choreographer Le1f, and the Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Waangenga Blanco, making parallel journeys around Australia, moving through locations including Alice Springs, the Tiwi Islands, Cape York and Redfern. Dance and song are the main forms of storytelling throughout – followed by a 15-minute dance ceremony by the two stars, summarising their experiences.

“The main thing that I wanted to make clear in the story is that even though I live in this urban environment and I’m sort of a 21st century blackfella, it’s from my land, my country and my history that I draw strength and give my life meaning,” Blanco, a descendant of the Mer Island people and of Cape York’s Pajinka Wik people, tells us.

Emotional exploration of a life’s journey

“What gives my life meaning is through our culture. And I think exploring me coming from the city and then finding myself back on country soil is a journey that I’m continually drawn to.”

The project, which saw the crew cover thousands of kilometres, came about when multidisciplinary artist Pete Keen and producer Daniel Stricker approached Blanco and Le1f.

Blanco’s part of the story presents a quest to find balance between the city – “there’s no way I could be doing what I’m doing living back in the small village I grew up in” – and yet needing to return to the land to find meaning.

“The city has its place and Aboriginal culture is something that is continually evolving and is still alive. I hope I’m testament to that through the stories I share,” he adds.

English words are few in the presentation, where the viewer is guided by Aboriginal people through their country. Besides being dazzled by the beautiful scenery – sweeping, drone-shot footage features heavily – and the performances, the audience is largely left to themselves to figure out what it all means. As the two gentlemen make their respective journeys without words, the viewer has to do the same.

The role of VR

And Blanco’s thoughts on the use of virtual reality for this kind of storytelling?

“It’s … virtual reality! It really surprises you,” he answered.

“I don’t know what the future of virtual reality is but what I do know is we’re getting some great feedback! Via Alice is one answer to the “what’s it for?” question, and one that has been positively received” he concluded.

The film’s immersive story of cultures meeting and sharing their stories through movement, presented in three dimensions and 360 degrees, is one we may see more of soon. The makers of Via Alice are already considering new locations and episodes so watch this space.

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