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Stones of Venice

We All Matter

2003: SARS-afflicted Hong Kong
On a radio phone-in, a man recounts in a tearful voice how his wife, stricken with the disease and dying, had sent him an SOS from the hospital. There was nothing he could do except text her back, as she and hundreds of other SARS patients had been placed in isolation.

2020: Italy, amid the COVID-19 crisis
Funerals are banned. The dead can only be reunited with their families as ashes.

These tragedies indicate why Stones of Venice is so relevant for audiences today. As people around the world find themselves facing the same fate of separation, they are, ironically, becoming ever-more interconnected. This is the central message of the online virtual-reality spinoff of 59 Productions’ Invisible Cities, according to co-director Leo Warner. To Warner, who is also founder and executive creative director of 59 Productions, an award-winning design studio and production company based in London and New York, it is a show that explores “what it means to be human in relation to other humans and the world, and how the world is affected by all the decisions and choices we have ever made”.

We’re not so different after all

In current times, individuality certainly seems to be valued over commonality. Even at this unprecedented moment in history, when much of the world has had to shut down, conflicts abound as differences between people and cultures are exploited. Yet in the tale told in Stones of Venice, Kublai Khan, ruler of a vast domain, is eager to learn what his diverse empire is like from Marco Polo, an Italian adventurer. Furthermore, in a flash of understanding, Khan is able to see beneath the surface of every city. There, he finds they are all defined by the unifying principles of architecture, geometry, and physics. “All cities are mirrors of each other,” Marco Polo concludes.

Our shared humanity, perhaps, is the common ground we should seek when differences appear insurmountable. So, here, in this immersive 360-degree VR journey, audiences will be transported directly inside Khan’s head to experience together his mind-blowing, life-changing epiphany.

Every cloud has a silver lining

A different perspective can also help to handle challenging times. With COVID-19 showing little sign of easing, many artists face losing their livelihoods. Yet it is thanks to the pandemic that Joseph Lee and Alice Ma, two young Hong Kong dancer-choreographers, have been able to take part in this world-class project, playing Marco Polo via motion capture. “The chance to work with the Rambert dance company and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is a real gift,” says Lee. An observation to which Ma concurs.

Despite being the first time both local and UK artists had worked entirely online, the process generally went smoothly, except for some “hilariously difficult” hiccups. “This is a VR experience, so the viewer is supposed to be in the middle of the action,” explains Lysander Ashton, who is co-directing Stones of Venice together with Warner. “The dancers needed some time before they could figure out how to make eye contact with the imaginary viewer.” During rehearsals, artists on both sides of the screen also came to realise that dance moves had to be magnified when it comes to motion capture to provide the impact that they sought to convey.

Amid the rise of high-tech innovation in the arts, the unexpected collaboration has allowed the local artists to gain first-hand experience of what motion capture can achieve, as well as its limitations. Such great groundwork should stand the duo in good stead for similar projects in the future.

Unexplored layer of storytelling

Indeed, 59 Productions, with such famous credits as the video design for the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony, and for the spectacular War Horse and An American in Paris, is at the forefront of live cross-disciplinary artistic endeavours that make liberal use of state-of-the-art technology. With his insider’s view, how does Warner see the performing arts are going to evolve? “As an additional layer of the narrative, VR/AR will coexist with live performance and live audiences in a physical environment, both indoors and outdoors,” he says. “A new form of mixed-reality performances will emerge.” The coronavirus crisis is already opening up new vistas for the arts, he notes, offering “an amazing layer of storytelling yet to be explored”.

Without stones there is no arch

Stones of Venice starts this COVID-19-era odyssey. The philosophical dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo on the workings of the universe and the nature of existence is a transcendental pursuit that lasts for centuries. “Without stones, there is no arch,” Marco Polo says. The world, vast as it is, consists of each and every one of us. As with Italo Calvino’s original novel of Invisible Cities, Warner asserts that everyone’s individual story is fundamental to the fabric of the universe, and that even the tiniest decisions we make will alter the world we are living in.

And there is something else that sets the Great Khan apart: “Although he is an emperor, he is open-minded and willing to learn more about the world,” Ashton remarks.

Along with Stones of Venice’s celebration of internationalism and cross-cultural dialogue, Warner considers it his duty to carry on creating. “Civilisation is an aggregation of all the thoughts and ideas that have been shared, and anything that hasn’t been shared will go to waste.”

For pioneers, the dialogue continues.