by Steven Pisano
"We are stardust/ Billion year old carbon/ We are golden/ Caught in the devil's bargain/ And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." --Joni Mitchell
For anyone interested in the origins of the Universe, the concepts of space and time, or the genesis of life, the spectacular, awe-inspiring photographs taken with the Hubble Space Telescope over the past 36 years have been a magical, almost religious source of wonder, enabling humankind to peer back 14 billion years into our collective past. These extraordinary photographs have inspired scientists to dream about what the future might hold for us.
In Paola Prestini and Royce Vavrek's The Hubble Cantata, which received its world premiere as a full-length virtual reality experience at BRIC's Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival on Saturday night, the audience was invited to travel on a shared journey inspired by these majestic images, following the skeletal story of a woman who is born, dies, and seeks to be reborn, just as stars are reconstituted from their own stellar dust. Images of ex-New York City Ballet dancer Wendy Whelan were projected onto a scrim in front of the orchestra and chorus.
The tease of the show to the thousands of people in attendance was that it was the first-ever fusing of a major musical performance with Virtual Reality. But the VR experience--a wishy-washy video of the Orion Nebula called "Fistful of Stars" by filmmaker Eliza McNitt viewed on smartphones inserted into cardboard headsets--was underwhelming at best. I was anticipating oohs and aahs all around me, but mostly I saw a sea of shrugs. With a long line of feature film depictions of space from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Gravity, there has been no shortage of jaw-dropping footage of what space might look like.