Su­garplums and pop­corn

This month, live stream­ing will be bring­ing the best in clas­si­cal bal­let to a cinema near you

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY et­tie Neil-gal­lacher

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.

Don

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

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