Tara Lee, co-founder of Terminus Modern Ballet, talks with Mitch Stark of Theatre Avenue

‘Exstasis’ - Post-Show Projections Chat with Tara Lee

Dancer and show creator Tara Lee discusses use of projections in ballet performance

In October 2017, Theatre Avenue teamed up with Terminus Modern Ballet Company to create a series of unique digital projections for the world premiere of their show, ‘Exstasis.’ A small troupe of former Atlanta Ballet dancers and creators, Terminus set out to tell an emotionally-charged story with strong themes and visuals. I sat down with Tara Lee, the choreographer and one of the show’s producers, to chat about the role digital projections played in the production.

Opening Thought on the Projections in the Show

Tara: The projections added even more than I thought, because I wasn’t trying to depend on them as I told you in the beginning. And now after realizing what they brought to the production and how they really gave full visceral experience, I couldn’t imagine the show without them now. They allowed it to be this multidimensional, cinematic experience. And we used them sparingly still but when they came in they were so important from the subtitles to the imagery and we timed when they came in, and it really illustrated what we were trying to get the audience to understand what was happening, and imagination and that place and dimension. So the projections were really able to come in and show that other dimension which was crucial for this piece.

Post-Show Chat

Mitch: Can you talk about how you used projection in and around the dancers to bring a certain dimension or life to the story you were telling?

Tara: My goal for the projections was to add an important layer of a dream of a world that allows a character to feel free in their minds. So those projections were really able to execute that for us. There were a couple instances where we used projections as the projections were changing. For instance we had one that you designed that was black and white that started to morph into color, and as that was happening we were moving these walls outwards and expanding as they were turning to color so it was allowing that world to expand as the projections were changing and that was one of my favorite moments, I think for a lot of people, it was really ‘Wow!’ That hits home. You understand what’s happening, what we’re empowering those characters to imagine and where they are going in their heads is shown in the projections and it’s actually manipulating their physical environment and their experience. So it really added so much depth and meaning.

Production still of ballet show with digital projection in the background

Mitch: How big were the panels you were using (the surfaces you were projecting onto)?

Tara: The panels were about a little over 7 ft tall and about 8 ft wide. And we did parallelograms instead of vertical rectangles. So each wall depending on which side you saw was always leaning a little bit to the right or to the left which even added an interesting alter-reality feeling too. So they kept changing their orientation and configuration throughout the show to show these different types of imprisonment.

Mitch: Did you use multiple projectors or just one projector?

Tara: We used 2. We had 3 walls so we workshopped that a few different ways. At first, we were going to use one projection on one wall. Then the 2 projections on the 2 side walls really added that kind of surround feeling. And in an ideal world maybe in the future I would do 3 projectors if we had them on all 3 walls which would be beautiful. But the two walls even on flanking each side of the stage at different angles was beautiful, and then our middle wall without the third projector we used as kind of the staple center wall that would flip around in different ways and we would have our prison marks on it, the tick marks, signifying the passing of time. So it made sense too when we put it together. But we played with having projections on that wall too…but it made sense to have at least two.

Mitch: Did you display the projections from laptops?

Tara: Yes, we did QLab and it was all done through one laptop. And we had to do some adjustments with the projectors and placement and all that, but it wasn’t too bad. The biggest thing was once we figured out where they were going to be focused we had our hotspot for the walls for where the projection should be, and then a couple of different location options for the projections to still be seen. And I didn’t want it to be too clean anyways with the framing, I wanted it to be a little bit of bleeding off of the wall here and there so if we were able to move the walls during the projections, and it worked beautifully. It really gave a dream-like quality.

Group shot of projection designer Mitch Stark with Terminus Modern Ballet creators and dancers

Mitch: Having seen your first attempt at it, are there any things that you’d want to do better, differently, or explore more in the future with projections in the shows?

Tara: I’ve been thinking about [this]. One projection that I would have loved to have used and didn’t figure out a place for it at this time was the projection you gave us of the birds flying in the air. I don’t know how that didn’t get in there, but I feel like that’s such a beautiful image. There was one scene where we started with a colored sky and you helped it wonderfully morph into this darker abstract, slightly ominous look. I would have taken that scene now and expanded it more with those projections, I would have used projections more so we’d probably have more stage time with the beautiful color and had a slower morph into the dark, because that was so effective, we really timed that well with where the music and the scene starts to become a bit more closed in again. I would have wanted to exploit that contrast more. So just knowing that, I think I would have…probably taken more time with the projections, as much as possible, and not felt like we had to rush through anything. And people love it; it’s so visually rich and wonderful that I think people would have welcomed seeing more of that. And even the titles, the chapter titles we had before each part and the title of the work as the very end, I think that was very powerful. I loved that. It gave a sense of structure but still married the cinematic qualities of the projections with the live performance. I think it really worked beautifully, and I’m really pleased with all of that.

A Final Thought on the Collaboration

Tara: I think one of the most important things to mention about this collaboration with [Theatre Ave] is that like you’ve said from the very beginning, you are always wanting to support the work and what we were trying to share and not ever compete with it. And it was exactly what you said, it was so beautifully supportive and accentuated the work, magnified it, instead of feeling like there was something to compete against like ‘I didn’t know what to look at’ and I don’t think that at all, so it was truly a lovely co-creation in that way.

Tara Lee is an American-born Chinese ballet dancer, choreographer, and actress. She received her dance training from Donna Bonasera of Connecticut Dance Theatre, and received a full scholarship to the Joffrey Ballet School. After dancing with Joffrey II in New York City, she met John McFall who invited her to join Atlanta Ballet; she has been a principal artist with the company for 21 years. Tara has also been a member of Ballet British Columbia and a guest artist with New Orleans Ballet Theatre and Dominic Walsh Dance Theatre in Houston.  Her repertoire includes work by celebrated choreographers such as Jorma Elo, Christopher Hampson, James Kudelka, Jiri Kylian, Douglas Lee, Wayne MacGregor, Ohad Naharin, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Gina Patterson, Helen Pickett, Michael Pink, Crystal Pite, Yuri Possokhov, Alexei Ramantsky, Liam Scarlett, Lauri Stallings, Ben Stevenson, Twyla Tharp, and Stanton Welch. Principal roles include Odette in Swan Lake, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia in Hamlet, Mina in Dracula, and the title roles in Madame Butterfly, Cinderella, and Firebird. Tara has taught company class for Atlanta Ballet and the pre-professional level of Atlanta Ballet Center for Dance Education, as well as master classes for several schools and universities in Georgia including Emory and Brenau Universities. She has choreographed five original works for Atlanta Ballet. Her sixth commission is scheduled to make its world premiere in April 2018. She has also created/restaged several ballets for Wabi Sabi, New Orleans Ballet Theatre, Emory Dance Company, and Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami. Tara is an actress represented by J. Pervis Talent, and has co-starred in television series such as TNT’s Good Behavior and NBC’s Game of Silence.

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