‘Cosmic Rhythms’: Ballet Meets Astronomy in a New Immersive Experience by Joffrey Ballet and Adler Planetarium

It’s pitch black. Gradually, you see stars and the opening credits scroll up the dome like a Star Wars movie intro. “Adler Planetarium and The Joffrey Ballet present an Action Lines production in association with Big Foot Media.” Then, you hear a voice…

Our universe … a gravitational stage upon which all things dance …

It begins. Bodies move across the sky appearing as humans dancing on the moon, inside a nebula, exploding out from collisions, seemingly lit from within by the universe itself. 

Cosmic Rhythms — an immersive journey into the universe — is a 20-minute video experience projected onto the 360-degree dome in the Grainger Sky Theater, and the first-ever partnership between Joffrey Ballet and Adler Planetarium. A small, three-person production company called Action Lines brought the Chicago institutions together with a little help from their friends. 

“It was a really big project with a lot of moving parts,” said Xavier Nuñez, co-founder of Action Lines and company artist with Joffrey. The idea sparked when Nuñez saw an advertisement for another show at the Adler. “Most of their shows are very heavy on the education. I thought we could make something with creativity at the forefront.” 

After consulting with his business partners Dylan Gutierrez — also a Joffrey dancer — and Eric Grant, he sent an email to a random person in the Adler marketing department, whose name he found on their website. Jennifer Howell, Head of Public Relations, responded and was intrigued by the idea. The dancers invited her to a performance and on their week off after the show, they pitched the idea to her team via Zoom.

“Xavi wanted to do a fully immersive project and we really liked the idea,” Gutierrez said. “We thought we could draw a lot of parallels between the relationships that we don’t realize we have with each other … how the universe connects us,” Nuñez added. “It’s about the connection between humanity using space as a medium to tell that story.”

It has been one year since that initial email, and now Cosmic Rhythms has begun, having opened on Valentine’s Day. As only the seventh project for Action Lines, it has catapulted them — literally — to new heights. Nuñez directed and choreographed; Grant wrote the script and is one of the voices narrating; and Gutierrez did everything from making sure the dancers had water and snacks to securing the rights to use music from English rock band The Horrors. They brought on local film and production crew Big Foot Media; as well as an animator in Greece fluent in rotoscope technology and line animation; narrators; a makeup artist; dancers from Joffrey; and of course, consultants from Adler. 

“We love this sort of project here at the Adler because it helps bring astronomy to new audiences and in new ways,” said Director of Astronomy, Geza Gyuk, who provided background and concepts for the script. “It also aligns perfectly with our goal of communicating and appreciation for astronomy and science in general. We aren’t so focused on getting our visitors to learn any particular set of facts or concepts. What is more important is bringing to our guests our enthusiasm for learning about the universe and our place within it.” 

Everyone was on board, but first, they had to fundraise. “Adler loved the idea, but they didn’t have the means to add another project,” said Gutierrez, who performs in the piece and served as executive producer. “They were very transparent with us.” The leadership at the Joffrey — President and CEO Greg Cameron and Board Chair Anne Kaplan — jumped at the chance to help. “We are ecstatic to spark dialogue between the experts of the Adler Planetarium and Company Artists, bringing art and science together in a first-of-its-kind educational experience for Chicago audiences. I hope viewers will take away a new appreciation of the wonders of our world, the sensation of moving through “space,” as well as the ever-remarkable institutions of our city,” Kaplan said.

“We champion our artists’ voices in everything we do, from rehearsals at Joffrey Tower, to the Lyric Opera stage, and today, to the full dome of the Adler Planetarium, making yet another significant connection to Chicago’s network of institutions. Collaborations like these make everything brighter for Chicago, a city built on bringing dreams to reality,” Cameron said. 

With a budget of $40,000, Action Lines had to get creative with how to produce their creative vision which really should cost over $100,000. This is where the friends come in. 150 Media Stream — their first collaborator and presenter in 2020 — and Big Foot Media also made donations. Big Foot serves as the production team and the crew ended up taking on more work than originally anticipated. They’ve been producing videos for the Joffrey for over 10 years, so they are very familiar with filming dance, but this project took things to another level. 

“They do a lot of passion work for us, and we don’t like to assume that we will have access to all of their people, so we didn’t know how much they were going to do,” Gutierrez said. “There were two specific section we were originally brought on for and it expanded from there,” said Tim Whalen, creative director and owner of Big Foot. “At first, I was very involved in just getting it shot, taking what was on Xavi’s page and bringing it to life.” 

Some challenges came with the scope of the project, namely shooting in virtual reality and 800,00 resolution for a half sphere-shaped screen in slow motion. Nuñez shared a photo with Whalen of how he wanted it to look and Whalen’s job was to figure out how to make it happen. “Half or more of our job is problem solving,” Whalen said, and one major problem was how to create a nebula star effect on one of the dancers. After some troubleshooting, they did a few test shots on a black backdrop under a black light with a paint-splattered Nuñez during his lunch break. It looked cool, but it wasn’t quite right. 

Switching to a white backdrop helped, but the paint colors weren’t very bright. And then Whalen had an epiphany. “What if I inverted the footage? What if we shot it in reverse?” he thought, but the colors didn’t work. “I pulled out the original image again and inverted it in PhotoShop and that became our make-up guide. The dancer had to be the whitest he could be and then we painted him and shot him with the brightest lights we had. Everything was backwards. What our eyes were seeing wasn’t what the video was going to look like.” The result is a dancing inverted star man, which is just one small part of the larger, multi-section piece. 

“Collaboration is so important. This project shows that through and through. In retrospect, it’s insane,” Gutierrez said. “I appreciate all the work Xavi put into it. He’s a visionary, in my opinion.” Nuñez leans to the relationships, old and new, that worked on the project. “The idea was to garner relationships with people … to the music we use, the people we use, the organizations we collaborate with. I think we did a great job of bringing in as many people as possible,” he said. 

Cosmic Rhythms came together over five-minute breaks, lunches, two weeks of rehearsals, a day of filming, and limited pre- and post-production time. It shows what can happen when good intentions and creative talent come together with a common goal. Go see it. It really is stunning.

Cosmic Rhythms is open now at the Adler Planetarium’s Grainger Sky Theater, and will run every Wednesday at 6:15 PM through April 17, 2024. Tickets to Cosmic Rhythms are $15 (free to Star Pass holders) and available online at Adler Planetarium.

How To Help:

Since 1930, the Adler Planetarium has connected people with the universe and each other. Through research, school outreach, in-house programming and more, the Adler is able to bridge the gap between Chicagoans and the stars in an educational and exhilarating way. Supporting them through volunteer work or donations will directly impact their ability to keep this work going. To support their mission, visit Adler Planetarium online.

This year, Joffrey Ballet is “celebrating 68 years of artistic excellence.” And during that time, the Joffrey’s high standards and inclusivity have been the building blocks to what is now a premier dance company. By supporting Joffrey, you are supporting Company Artists, extensive repertoire, Academy and Community Engagement programs, and more. Visit Joffrey Ballet online to see how your support could impact artists of the Chicago and greater Midwest region.

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Photo by Cheryl Mann

Vicki Crain is a Chicago-based, freelance arts and culture writer. Her work has recently been featured in Chicago Magazine, and See Chicago Dance, as well as on her blog/podcast Rogue Ballerina. The second book in her children’s book series, The Furry Princess, will be published in 2024.

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