Feature: 'Live' - at the cinema

Monday 14 January 2013

How does seeing a production beamed live to a cinema compare to the real thing? Last month Graham Watts had the chance to compare and contrast both experiences. A few days after reviewing The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House for us [ here ] , he saw the same production and cast in a live cinema relay…

The live broadcast of opera and ballet relayed direct to cinemas around the world is the fastest-growing phenomena in the arts with all the illustrious Opera Houses now viewing it as a major opportunity to build their brand. *The Royal Opera House has been in the vanguard of developing live cinema screenings and will be broadcasting nine productions (six operas and three ballets) to over 900 cinemas in 32 countries during the 2012/13 season, supported by the Art in Our Communities® programme of the Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The relay of The Nutcracker on 13 December was the third in the series and was the second highest-grossing release at Britain’s cinemas that evening [ as reported in the London Evening Standard ].

There can be no substitute for any live theatre that can possibly offer the same depth of experience. Sitting in a cinema – even one as comfortable as the Apollo in London’s Piccadilly – doesn’t come close to replicating the vital experience of the Opera House. But, it is also true that for this very reason the Royal Opera House can be a forbidding and inaccessible place – particularly for those yet unaccustomed to its idiosyncrasies (I recently witnessed a young couple there being embarrassed because they applauded at a moment that convention required no applause).

There is no such issue of accessibility in a cinema, which is also a venue where eating and drinking during the performance is an unusual addendum to the enjoyment of ballet (an important requirement for children if not for hardened balletomanes). The issue of wider accessibility also arrives through opening a global front door to The Royal Ballet with people all over the world able to see the company performing live without leaving their home town or city. With the costs of touring becoming prohibitively expensive then beaming performances live into cinemas has to be a big part of the future for ballet.

Then, of course, there is the consideration of ticket price and value. The cinema screening offers an uninterrupted, close-up view of the action from a combination of the “best seats in the house” and for a fraction of the price. The downside is that the cinema audience sees only what the director ordains and when there is a close-up shot it isn’t possible to know what we may be missing elsewhere on the stage. However, where I found this to be a problem in past years it was hardly an issue on this occasion with the director concentrating our attention on all the right things.

Some purists might not like to see the “magic” of ballet diminished by showing dancers warming up or Drosselmeyer (Gary Avis) giving us a backstage tour that shows – for example – the intricacies of the transformation scene with the Christmas tree growing into a giant conifer. But, personally, I’m happy to trade a brief suspension of my belief in the magic to gain insights into the mechanics of the process. I have seen Peter Wright’s gorgeous production of The Nutcracker more than 40 times over the years but I still picked up many nuances that have never before occurred to me. For example, although it is obvious, I never previously appreciated that the decorations on the large Christmas tree have to be identical – in both scale and location – to those on the original tree, nor that the magical sleigh that transports Clara and the Nutcracker Prince from the Land of the Snow to the Kingdom of the Sweets is effectively a milk float!

The close-up view of the stage meant that there were many small happenings in the background action, especially during the party in the Stahlbaum’s Living Room and during the subsequent battle between the mice and the toy soldiers, which entered my consciousness anew because of the impact of the huge cinema screen. There is also no place to hide and the superb harmonies of the corps de ballet as both snowflakes and flowers, and of the soloists in the Dance of the Mirlitons and the many national dances of Act II, were all the more impressive for standing up to this close scrutiny. The Arabian Dance was especially memorable. The same is also true for the work of the principals all of whom paid strict attention to every detail to ensure that the forensic, cinematic investigation of their art was not to expose that any corners had been cut. Having seen the same cast in situ a few days earlier only added to my enjoyment of this experience as the quick comparisons added even more insight into the charm of this most splendid of ballets.

So, my verdict is that although this live cinema viewing of ballet can never be a substitute for the theatrical experience, it is nevertheless a considerable bonus and well worth accessing, even if a trip to see The Royal Ballet live at the Opera House is not out of the reach of either your pocket or your home. It is also a means of stretching the appeal of great ballet and the past performance of this initiative (previous live ballet showings from The Royal Ballet have featured in the daily top five of box office performances in the UK) show that it is an initiative which is gathering momentum.

The next ballet production to be screened in the Royal Opera House Live Cinema series will be Christopher Wheeldon’s highly successful production, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland on Thursday 28 March.

Full details of all cinema screenings:

Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

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