The Boston Ballet will jeté far beyond the four walls of its long-time home at the Boston Opera House in a new way this weekend, showcasing seven dance-based immersive experiences in a portable dome that debuts Saturday in a Roxbury neighborhood street fair.
The ÜNI Public Art dome represents an audacious experiment for a dance company that struggled during the pandemic’s initial lockdown to both keep its creative talent working while expanding its reach to audiences that, for various reasons, seldom ventured into the opera house, said Meredith “Max” Hodges, the organization’s executive director.
“So really big questions have been asked in the past couple of years, about the role of technology in the art form, both the role of technology in the way the art is created, but also the role of technology in the way the art is consumed by the audiences,” said Hodges. “And then, similarly importantly, a really big basket of questions (were asked)44 about how to break down long standing barriers that have prevented certain communities from experiencing the performing arts, preconceived notions, particularly about ballet who is ballet for and who is welcome.”
Ultimately, the conversations with a variety of tech experts, including a former MIT Media Lab director, also informed how to the dance company could help extend one of the most formal, fusty and conservative-seeming of art forms to a much wider and more diverse fan base.
“Boston Ballet’s ÜNI Public Art is one answer, or one hypothesis, or one experiment, that gets at the heart of some of these very big questions,” Hodges said.
“ÜNI” with an umlaut over the U, is a Finnish word, partly an homage to Mikko Nissinen, the ballet company’s Helsinki-born artistic director. But it’s also a word that means, in Finnish, a “dream state,” with connotations of “strength of will, determination, perseverance,” Hodges said.
In a happy linguistic and marketing confluence, in English and other Latin-based languages, UNI also connotes “concepts of togetherness through art, reunion, community, communication,” Hodges said.
And both sets of meanings nicely encapsulate what the organization is hoping to create with ÜNI, which will be part of a handful of community events around the Boston region this fall and next spring, beginning with the Open Streets event Saturday in Roxbury’s Blue Hill Avenue, Hodges said.
The organization performs about 100 times a year at the opera house, to about 2,000 people at a time, Hodges said. The ÜNI will provide a different kind of ballet experience, free, stay as long as you want, in the community.
The dome structure is designed to be temporary, built on four trusses, and able to be erected and taken down in less than a day. The ballet company also commissioned its creative talent, who in normal times would be creating projects for performance in the Opera House, to think about creating more immersive experiences for the UNI, while making sure those in front of and behind the camera were diverse in every way possible.
The dome holds about 20 people at a time, and people will be able to come and go as they please. Each of the seven commissioned experiences will run for about a half hour.
It’s way too soon to know what else the ballet company may do with the seven projects, Hodges said. Immersive experiences are having a moment across the country, led by experiences such as the Immersive Van Gogh from Lighthouse Immersive and Impact Museums that sold more than 5 million tickets in North America last year. That experience combined projection mapping of Van Gogh’s iconic work set to a soundtrack of custom music and other audio.
Other immersive live projects of many kinds are multiplying across the country, especially as entertainment companies such as Netflix