Going to the ballet in a theater venue is always an exciting experience. People dress up, and black-tie galas bring out the tony social set. We hear the buzz of the crowd around us, and erudite comments, as we pass through the marbled lobby adorned with gold.
The lights dim, and the orchestra warm-up blends into an odd harmonic synthesis of music, diminishing conversation, and program pages, perused. All of this builds anticipation for the grand ballet to come, and the big, velvet curtain rises.
This is how we used to do it, at least those who were lucky enough to live in a major metropolitan area. Art was limited to a certain segment of the population, both geographically and financially.
The good news is that now ballet has come full circle into not only the electronic age with videos online, and “World Ballet Day,” but to cinema as well. There have always been a few ballets in cinema, but these were mainly limited to smaller art houses. I remember Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev’s film, The Sleeping Beauty” that came to theaters decades ago. It was, however, for a niche ballet audience, and the theater was not always convenient to attend.
Now, however, a number of major ballet companies are offering a series of ballet films at major theater chains throughout the United States. Art is more affordable now, and the price of a movie ticket promises immersion into another world inside the cinema. Some of these ballet films are live from around the world, while others have been recently taped. These include The Royal Ballet, The Bolshoi, and Lincoln Center at the Movies, and more.
But, is there a difference to the audience member who watches a ballet on film versus on stage? Let’s take a further look….
Academic reader reception critics, Wolfgang Iser and Hans Robert Jauss, claim that there is a connection between reader and author. I think that the same holds true for performer and audience in live theater. The audience and performers create a bond of suspension of belief, cajoling the audience into a shared experience. Audiences also may be different on different days. A Tuesday night audience may be tired from work, while a Saturday night audience may have higher energy from the weekend, which then feeds into, and aids performers. Feedback of applause, (appreciation for fouettes or grand pas) gasps (if dramatic) and laughter (if comic) can help to drive a performance. Reaction from audience helps performers to hone skills, whether technical or comic. Whether it’s opera or ballet, when you know the audience is with you, it encourages you to go for that high note, or turn that extra fouette!
In ballet on film, however, there are actually two audiences – the “live” one in Russia, and the cinema one, where people throughout the world sit. On one hand, the “live” audience drives the elite performance. On the other hand, the cinema audience is pulled into the excitement by the first audience, and then has its own reaction as well. Because the movie theater is also dark, the focus of audience is just as great on the screen, as it would be on stage at a grand theater venue.
Another noteworthy point is that while it is also wonderful to see star dancers in person, and share that theater space with famous people, it is also wonderful to see them on film, which may freeze a performance in time capsule form for future generations.
Yet another difference on film is that we are presented with a treasure trove of narration, behind the scenes “sneak peeks,” backstage flurry, and interviews with dancers, fresh from Act One who describe how they felt about their performances. We have even more ambiance as audience members watch in a movie theater with “special features” type interviews and background. We can glimpse the reality of the process of performance from the dancer’s elation regarding his or her execution of steps, to the sweat that trickles down the ballerina’s neck. The commentary and clips of rehearsals in between Acts also make the viewing of art both fantasy and reality at the same time.
Most of the ballet on film is live, so the live theater effect still kicks in. Anything can happen. After all, a bravura performance can make a crowd roar, and we, in the cinema audience, can actually hear that crowd. It simulates the live theater effect for us, and we feel that we are there! We have a much better seat, as we go from stage to behind the curtain!
One problem with live ballet though at major companies is that unless the ballet is filmed, those performances, sadly, will be forever lost. Film, however, immortalizes and captures performance. It will last throughout the changing technologies, and though the performance itself will never vary, it can be studied, and endlessly enjoyed.
Another distinct perspective is a philosophical one. A filmed performance captures a three dimension physical reality on a two dimensional piece of celluloid (or whatever digital process now being used). To see the artistry, technique and uniqueness of every performer on that film, in three dimensions is amazing.
The idea of capturing performance or images of people and objects always fascinated me. When I was about nine or ten years old, I had a Viewmaster toy, with multiple discs to view different scenes of live action stills of people, animals movies, or puppets. I was fascinated by the perception of these images on a two dimensional piece of film, and I would take the disc out over and over to feel the celluloid, knowing that it somehow held volume within its thinness.
This is the way I feel about ballet movies today.
I had an academic paper, The Philosophy of the Red Shoes, published in a journal in 2013, in which I looked at three ballet films along with the idea of reality in performance and filming. Film historically archives life, time period, social dress, behavior and more. Shirley Temple’s smile at the end of almost every movie she made will always be there – a symbol of optimism for the 1930’s. Buster Keaton’s silent antics, Charlie Chaplin’s balletic moves, musicals, such as An American in Paris, along with ballet in cinema will create an historic record of art for decades to come
So, whether you dress up for a black-tie gala at The Met, or wear jeans and munch quietly on popcorn during a cinema showing of Swan Lake, you experience “art.” I must admit that I love to attend black-tie galas and ballet premieres, but even though I love live performance, I think that the more valuable of the two, between stage and film however, may be the cinema version of ballet. It is an historical record that will preserve the elite form, its star performers, and showcase its famous choreographers.
Ballet is a synthesis of several artistic forms: music, design, costume, and unique personalities who bring to life the great characters from the ballet world, whether literary, fairy tale, myth, or works of original origin. It’s much like the argument between who is the better dancer – Baryshnikov, or Nureyev? It’s an impossible choice, as both are exceptional dancers! Stage and film also share that wonderful positive, but also that impossible choice. What a panacea for ballet lovers to have both!
If you still have any doubts, however, about the merit of ballet on film, just take a glimpse at the historical fragment below of Anna Pavlova, and more…
Ballet in cinema is a treasure!
If you’d like to see the movie schedules for ballet on film, here are the three major sites:
The Royal Opera House (opera and ballet) 2015-2016 season
http://www.roh.org.uk (Click on black cinema box)
Lincoln Center at the Movies
Image – Opera House:
By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work own photograph) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image – Cinema
By Fernando de Sousa from Melbourne, Australia (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Image – Anna Pavlova, Natalia Makarova and Yvette Chauvire
By Betsi Jane (Own work) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
October 4th, 2015
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