Sugarplums and popcorn
This month, live streaming will be bringing the best in classical ballet to a cinema near you
No need to go to Covent Garden to watch ballet, says Ettie Neil-gallacher
If it encourages just a few hundred new converts then it has to be a good thing
The cultural zeitgeist seems to dictate that art must be made accessible, as if there were somehow something elitist about talent, dedication and perfection. Such a trend risks promoting low culture alongside the celebration of secondand even third-tier proponents of their craft.
One innovation that rather bucks this trend, to my mind, is the live streaming of opera and ballet from Covent Garden, the Met, the Bolshoi and elsewhere. Last year, more than 800,000 people worldwide watched cinema screenings from the Royal Opera House (ROH) and in excess of 727,000 watched World Ballet Day live. This is an annual event that takes place in the first week of October. Co-produced by the Royal Opera House, it is a collaboration between the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the San Fransisco Ballet, the Australian Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, who all livestream their respective preparations for their current programmes. As summarised by Kevin O’hare, the director of the Royal Ballet, it offers “a day in the life of some of the leading dance companies from around the world”, showcasing the diversity of the Royal Ballet’s repertoire and celebrating ballet as an art form. Online viewers will be able to watch rehearsals, listen to interviews with the dancers and observe “the perennially popular” morning class.
But what is the point of World Ballet Day? Luke Jennings, dance critic and author, describes it as “a sound idea”, giving “a pretty good insight”, but acknowledges that “it’s difficult to be sure whether it actually brings in a new audience or extends the experience of the existing one”. Graham Watts OBE, chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards, describes it as “a great day for balletomanes” and emphasises how social media has enabled people to get “a wide range of insights into the discipline and art of ballet”. He suspects it may go unnoticed by the general public, “but if it encourages just a few hundred new converts while providing enjoyment for those already converted, then it has to be a good thing”.
The other key development in the quest for accessibility at the Royal Opera House this season is the re-opening of the Linbury Studio Theatre, a secondary, subterranean performance space. It was first constructed in 1999 and has come to be used for experimental and independent dance and music events, and to be known for its extreme lack of comfort and poor acoustics. Its reconstruction comes as part of the ROH’S privately funded Open Up programme, which will also incorporate a new shop, bars and cafes, while the Main Stage is unaffected. Emma Southworth, senior producer at the Royal Ballet, was unable to comment on the number of seats or on the programme for its reopening, but says that the newly configured space would, “allow us to welcome a range of companies from around the UK and internationally and for us to produce work on a smaller scale to the big stage”. In its previous incarnation it had 400 seats and it is believed that it will be of a similar size and continue to offer similar performances.
A cynic might suggest that the Linbury Studio Theatre is useful to the ROH as it enables it to up its diversity quota while not actually investing in those choreographers as Main Stage attractions, acting as a conduit for the Royal Ballet to broaden its offering to the public. O’hare speaks passionately of this need to reach a wider audience: “It’s essential to keep broadening the appeal of ballet by making it accessible to everyone.”
Watts praises O’hare for this, extolling his “quietly understated but efficient leadership”, which has already shown that he is
“ready and willing to reach out and provide a platform for some of the most influential of contemporary choreographers”, even if these meet with mixed responses from audiences and critics. Watt hopes that the re-opening of the Linbury Studio Theatre will include more of the emerging choreography coming from the dancers themselves.
Jennings observes the “considerable pressure” that O’hare is under to produce new work alongside the classics in order to harness this “more diverse audience, and achieve a more contemporary application of classical ballet”. O’hare points to new pieces by resident choreographer Wayne Mcgregor, alongside others such as Crystal Pite, Arthur Pita and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as well as “fresh story ballets”, such as Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which O’hare describes as “classics for the future”.
But are they? And is this the job of a publicly funded, classical ballet company? Watts argues that it has been using modern choreographers since its inception and is “a world leader”. Jennings advises caution, while being “sympathetic to O’hare’s predicament”, he warns that “in looking for work that is of today, the Royal Ballet is doing work that isn’t classical” and therefore risks straying beyond the classical idiom. “O’hare is moving into the future but it’s not a classical balletic future if he’s essentially borrowing from contemporary dance. If you’re going to be a company which does a lot of off-classical work then you have to roll with the punches when the corps doesn’t look right in tutus. Putting contemporary dance onto the Covent Garden stage isn’t carrying classical dance forward or creating a new form of ballet. It’s very difficult trying to strike the right balance and the middle ground is a vulnerable place.”
Critics are divided as to whether this can be achieved. Watt reasons that while “moving between a classical Swan Lake to a work by Mcgregor or Shechter is always going to present challenges to dancers’ bodies”, this can be managed through careful dancer selection. Jennings argues that the regimen required by classical ballet is such that it is impossible to do both that and more contemporary work. “Classical ballet is a very specific discipline which is essentially about itself.
A company can’t be all things. If it spends six months doing non-classical work, it won’t then turn out a world-class Swan Lake.” Or, to put it another way, if you’re a Beethoven expert you need to focus on the symphonies and not guest on a Coldplay album.
Jennings stresses that this is not a criticism of the Royal Ballet – companies the world over are in a similar predicament. With one exception. Like vodka and bleak literature, classical ballet seems to be another thing the Russians do best, via the Bolshoi and Mariinsky companies, in particular, which routinely produce transportive perfomances. “The Russians are prepared to be criticised for paying little heed to new ideas in classical dance. There’s quite a bit of kitsch in their repertoire, and a lot of the work is conceptually creaky and quite old-fashioned. But they understand that if you’re going to do classical dance then you need commitment to remain the best, and everything else is secondary. Compared to the Royal Ballet, their productions can look a bit dowdy. But the dancing is something else. And for someone who loves ballet, it’s all about the dancing.”
Watt feels that British ballet occupies a strong international position, with the Royal Ballet responding to the competition provided by regional companies such as the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Scottish Ballet and the Northern Ballet, and from Tamara Roja’s work at the English National Ballet in particular creating “a very healthy” situation. So maybe despite Russian superiority and not being able to hop on a plane for Moscow or St Petersburg, there will be enough to entertain most of us in London this season.
Left: the Bow Street entrance of the Royal Opera House. Below: the company performingQuixote, with choreography by Carlos Acosta
Above: the proposed seating structure for the Linbury Studio Theatre, the ROH’S secondary, subterranean performance space, which has been reconstructed and is due to reopen this month
A Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker (above and previous page), with Alexander Campbell and Francesca Hayward
Above left: a scene from the Royal Ballet’s La Bayadère. Above: principal dancer Marianela Nuñez celebrates 20 years with the company