Birmingham Royal Ballet Opens ‘Accessible’ XR Series

The company has teamed up with RiVR and Canon to deliver the arts tailored for neurodivergent audiences

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Published: September 5, 2023

Demond Cureton

The Birmingham Royal Ballet is set to take the virtual stage by rolling out a series of immersive shows for neurodivergent spectators.

The first-ever immersive experience for the organisation will leverage virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR) technologies to recreate performances. Doing so will provide potential audiences greater access to theatre experiences by bringing the show to them.

Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Digital Accelerator Programme for Arts and Culture funded the initiative. It will also incorporate 3D mapping and motion capturing (mocap) technologies from partner firms.

The virtual ballet series will debut performances such as The Nutcracker as NutcrackAR, an AR iteration of the famous ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In addition to a 360 version of the masterpiece, attendees can walk around the stage and interact with photogrammetric objects.

Birmingham will also embed AR objects around the second-largest city in the UK in an exclusive scavenger hunt. For the activity, people can use smartphones and tablets to navigate the experience and retrieve hidden devices.

Additionally, Canon, one of the world’s premier imaging and camera technology firms, has partnered with West Midland schools to showcase a behind-the-scenes Swan Lake VR experience.

RiVR, another British extended reality (XR) firm, has created an additional Nutcracker VR documentary for the series of promotions.

The film will debut at schools for children with special needs and via neurodiversity programmes. Freefall, the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s dance company with learning disabilities, will also feature an immersive performance.

Setting the Stage for a New Wave of Ballet

The news comes just months after the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Rogers debuted a series of “cutting-edge” photogrammetry scans of the company’s performances.

“[Photogrammetry] scanning at the Birmingham Royal Ballet today with tom togers – getting ready for a cutting edge [immersive] experience to be released later this year,” Alex Harvey, Co-Founder, RiVR wrote in a tweet in February.

Comments on Birmingham Royal Ballet XR Debut

Several people involved in the massive XR initiative spoke on the project’s success.

In a press statement, Tom Rogers, Creative Digital Producer, BRB, said as quoted by The Guardian,

“There are lots of people who can’t attend live theatre, and can’t come and watch us – not just neurodivergent people, but also elderly people or young children. We want to bring what we do to them, and this technology is a really powerful tool for engagement. There’s a genuine level of fear with some of this technology that we’re all going to disappear behind a headset and never talk to each other. That isn’t true – we will never replace live theatre and we will never try to do that. But this offers a completely different sensory experience.”

Additionally, Carlos Acosta, Ballet Creative Director, Birmingham Royal Ballet, voiced his excitement over the programme. He stated he was excited that his company was “one of the first ballet companies in the world to embrace immersive technology”.

He said in full,

“I am absolutely thrilled that we have launched Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Virtual Stage, becoming one of the first ballet companies in the world to embrace immersive technology and unlock the potential it holds. I am particularly excited about the possibilities this work has for reaching younger and new audiences across the globe, bringing them up close to classical ballet in a way that, until recently, has not been possible. Virtual Stage is another example of BRB’s commitment to pushing boundaries and keeping ballet fresh and relevant for future generations”

Clive Booth, Photographer and Filmmaker for the Swan Lake VR performance, said in the Guardian article that the experience aimed to make it as authentic as possible.

Speaking to the Guardian, he said,

“When you see ballet live, one of the things that always surprises people is how much you can hear footfall on stage,” he said. “We have recreated that with this. You can see the sweat on people’s faces, hear their breath, you can even hear the tutus rustling. It’s a visceral experience.”

Despite challenges in delivering the experiences to people, Booth believes user adoption would increase over time.

He explained: “We could go on tour and visit elderly people’s homes, hospitals, schools. There’s definitely a future for this but it’s not about trying to replace what already exists.

“You wouldn’t record a whole performance of the Nutcracker and put it in VR. You have to find different ways of telling stories,” Booth concluded.

XR: The New Medium for Artists?

To date, art has become a phenomenal vertical for XR technologies. Many of the world’s top creatives have leveraged XR to showcase fresh ways of interacting with their audiences.

For example, London’s iconic National Portrait Gallery showcased an augmented reality art gallery across the UK’s capital city in 2021.

Using technologies from creative communications agency Premier, the West End exhibit allowed people to enjoy art from the premier venue amid the ongoing pandemic, which shuttered businesses temporarily due to national lockdown procedures.

Furthermore, Matt Collishaw shocked audiences with his ‘Bedlam’ 4D art exhibition in London. The groundbreaking event incorporated cutting-edge interactive visuals, motion capturing (mocap) tools, evolving storylines powered by artificial intelligence (AI), and other innovative artworks in a world-first exhibit.

Furthermore, Vicon, a class-leading camera and mocap firm, teamed up with Dreamscape Interactive in a stellar use case of immersive technologies. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of SIGGRAPH, this year’s event saw the two firms debut “The Clockwork Forest.” The large-scale immersive experience leveraged Vicon’s markerless mocap technologies to curate Dreamscape’s digital content for massive audiences at the world-renowned event.


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