New virtual tool makes distanced performing arts classes possible

WIndow Wall
Heritage Professor of Dance Christopher d'Amboise creates system that allows for life-size, full-body teaching from anywhere in the world.

While teaching at George Mason University, Heritage Professor of Dance Christopher d'Amboise saw the need for a video conferencing system that would allow for life-size, full-body interaction—projecting dancers from a remote location directly on to the wall of the Mason studio and allowing him to successfully teach dance to students anywhere in the world.

So he created one. The result is a virtual teaching system called the Moving Story Window Wall. When the pandemic hit, the technology enabled Mason’s School of Dance to offer hybrid dance classes while keeping dancers and faculty safe.

During the first week of school, small groups of dancers in separate studios in the de Laski Performing Arts Building moved within their marked personal spaces, and the entire class, including those students taking the class remotely, was brought together using Window Wall’s large-scale video display.

“The system is particularly helpful in today’s world,” said d’Amboise, “because it allows the professors to teach live and online at the same time.  It also gives the students who are studying remotely a sense of community with their on-campus classmates.”

Karen Reedy, director of the School of Dance, agrees.

“The technology and Window Wall in our four studios have allowed us to come back to campus, provide in-person classes and connect with the students who are attending class remotely,” said Reedy. “We are thrilled to be back in our studios, where our students are dancing, creating and connecting with one another.”

While they are working the kinks out of the system, including equipment that has been on back order, d’Amboise and Reedy have already hosted a guest artist residency on Sept. 20, during which Mason dancers worked with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer and choreographer Hope Boykin.

“We were able to project her—life-size—into all four studios simultaneously, and she was choreographing and teaching as if she was standing in the room with all our students,” said d’Amboise.

Looking to the future, the Window Wall will allow Mason students the opportunity to be taught by leading artists from anywhere in the world. There will also be new opportunities for the faculty to expand their influence.

“Professors are no longer bound by geography and can share curriculum with universities and arts organization worldwide,” said d’Amboise, emphasizing this is also useful when travel is not curtailed by a pandemic.

d’Amboise, who also has an MFA from Mason, sees many future applications for the Window Wall, including showing classroom activities on exterior campus walls so students passing by can see what’s going on inside the studios, as well as projecting multidisciplinary performances in unique public spaces. He also looks forward to using the system for master classes in other disciplines such as theater, music, and the visual arts.

“We are having to re-imagine many aspects of our program during the pandemic, and this technology is allowing us to be able to provide experiences with artists in other locations—such as New York City, teach our distance-learning students and completely transform our opportunities for performance,” said Reedy.

"The Window Wall is both evolutionary and revolutionary,” said Rick Davis, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. “Teleconferencing has been around a long time—and is now, for better or worse, part of our daily reality. But Christopher's insight was to realize that, with just the right ingredients, the idea could scale up, creating true three-dimensional, life-size interactions across unlimited distances for groups of people in motion. I can't wait to see where it takes us, as teachers and students and artists."