Gregory Oh leads his ensemble while the Halorinas dance at The Music Gallery on Sunday night.
If you wanted to stage a ballet, but instead of things like dancers and costumes and balletic training all you had were a bunch of laptops and some copies of the video game Halo, you’d be justified in giving up. But as it turns out, you’d be a quitter, because there’s a way to do it with only those tools.
Gregory Oh, a bespectacled man with long, black hair he wears in a ponytail, is a local pianist and conductor, and the artistic director of Toca Loca, a musical ensemble. He was also the curator of this year’s X-Avant music festival (it ended Sunday night), and the producer of Halo: The Ballet, which had its debut performance at The Music Gallery on Sunday, as part of the aforementioned festival.
Halo, for those unfamiliar, is the first in a series of video games (the others in the series being Halo 2 and Halo 3). Players control a space-suited soldier who divides his time between diverse activities like killing aliens with grenades, killing aliens with pulse rifles, killing aliens with vehicle-mounted cannons, and walking around looking for more aliens to kill. It’s not balletic by nature, nor is it something that could really be improved with a soundtrack by Tchaikovsky.
But Oh has noticed that Halo, like many video games, has possibilities beyond those intended by its creators. “There’s a book by Tom Bissell called Extra Lives that just came out,” Oh told us, “and he talked about a certain phenomenon that occurred with [the video game Grand Theft Auto 3]. And the phenomenon was that people were doing things for no reward.”
“If you’re in GTA, you don’t get points for killing a cop or running over a hooker.” These are things your in-game character can do in Grand Theft Auto. “But people will spend hours just jacking cop cars, shooting cops, getting into battles and running over as many pedestrians as they can. For no reason at all.”
So if the rules of game worlds can be bent to violent ends, it follows that they can also be exploited for the sake of art. “If you feel like doing a ballet, you can do a ballet,” said Oh. “Why not?”
But the whole idea invites a question. As Oh put it: “When people watch this, are they going to see people playing a video game, or are they going to see a dance?”
A couple weeks before the debut performance of Halo: The Ballet, we had the privilege of sitting in on a rehearsal.
In the living room of an apartment in Parkdale, Oh’s crew of performers was splayed out on couches and chairs. The three guys who were going to perform the ballet (or “Halorinas,” as they were called in the X-Avant program guide) each had a MacBook in front of them, with Halo running. All three were logged in to the same multiplayer level, meaning they could see and interact with each other’s in-game characters on their respective screens. These “dancers” would be moving only their fingers. The entire performance was going to take place inside the game world, on-screen.
There was also a fourth MacBook running Halo. It, too, was logged in to the multiplayer level, but the guy operating it wasn’t going to be part of the dance, exactly. Instead, his job was to keep the in-game characters of the three Halorinas in his own character’s field of view. (Halo is a first-person game, so players see the game world on-screen as it would appear through their character’s eyes.) This guy was acting, essentially, as a cameraman. The cameraman’s laptop had been connected to a large LCD monitor in the centre of the room, so everyone could see the performance. (See the video, courtesy of Toca Loca, below.)
Choreographer Julia Alpin issued some last-minute instructions. “Did someone set up the tanks?” she asked. Someone had.
A recorded version of the musical arrangement composer Aaron Gervais had developed specifically for Halo: The Ballet started playing on the house stereo. And then the dance began.
On the large LCD monitor, three space-suited soldiers ran into view from the far horizon, over computer-generated hills and dales, and leapt into the air in a carefully timed sequence, like mountain goats, to uptempo piano music. They walked over to where some jeep-like vehicles were parked. The music crescendoed and they picked up rocket launchers and started firing shells at the jeeps, creating huge explosions to coincide with the soundtrack’s swells.
The camera moved back for a wider shot, and the three space marines lined up side-by-side, and began making synchronized movements. One of the Halorinas began counting off steps, from behind his laptop screen: “Crouch, throw, up. Crouch, throw, up.” Every movement had a corresponding button sequence the three performers needed to press at exactly the right time.
The three soldiers jumped on top of one another’s heads to form a kind of totem pole configuration, and began using their handguns to fire bright blue balls of energy off into the surrounding landscape. Then, something terrible happened: someone’s aim veered a little too close to the totem and hit one of the other soldiers square in the torso, sending him flying and completely throwing off the choreography. Mishaps were evidently as much a possibility as in any live performance. But this was only a rehearsal, and the Halorinas recovered their composure quickly.
Two of the three marines hopped into those tanks Alpin was worried about and drove the tanks into each other. Rather than firing the cannons, the Halorinas moved the turrets around slowly, almost tenderly, so that the gun stalks looked like baby elephant trunks. The third performer, who had been off-screen for a minute or so, flew his character back into view inside a purple aircraft, and swooped over the tanks in curlicue fashion, in time to appropriate musical flourishes.
There was no denying that the performance was in some sense balletic, if not by the strictest definition.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Oh.
On Sunday night at the Music Gallery, a small performance space that operates out of the sanctuary of a working church just south of the Art Gallery of Ontario, a crowd of perhaps one hundred and fifty witnessed Halo: The Ballet’s world premiere. Instead of recorded music, the ballet was accompanied by a live band complete with a harpist, conducted by Oh, who also played keyboard. The Halorinas sat with their laptops at a long wooden table next to a large projection screen that was being used to display the “camera” feed. There was only one instance of accidental friendly fire, but it was a small calibre bullet, so it didn’t mess things up.
The crowd applauded afterward. One audience member called the performance “ingenious.” It was a moment of cultural alchemy.
They didn’t see people playing a video game. They saw a dance.
Photos by Eric Yip/Torontoist.