Live Ballet and Theatre – At a cinema near you!

Over the course of the past year there has been a surge in world class theatre, ballet and opera companies, even art galleries, screening their performances, either live or pre-recorded. I was initially sceptical about this as there’s always something magical about going to a theatre and watching things live within their own settings with an audience buzzing around you and being able to take in all the action. My initial thought to cinema screenings was whether the atmosphere would be much flatter and how I’d react to my eye being specifically drawn in a particular direction. It’s barmy when you think about those worries, as we all at some point sit down to watch live ceremonies and sports competitions on our TV.

And it was barmy.

Call me a convert.

The first screening I attended was the Royal Ballet’s live broadcast of Swan Lake from the Royal Opera House. Now I never had ballet lessons as a child and the only ballet I’d ever seen was The Snowman when I was about 10 and somehow I don’t think that counts as I can’t actually remember any of it. So this really was my first proper experience of ballet. I have to be honest, it took me a while to get the hang of it and settle into the performance as I found it bizarre going into a performance that didn’t have any dialogue. And yes, I do know that sounds daft, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt that. The performance actually started with an introduction by Darcey Bussell. This was actually a really nice touch as it allowed people to see some of the cast before the opening act and to be introduced to the work. There were also interviews with cast members and the production team throughout the intervals. If you’re interested in seeing any of those interviews they are on the Royal Opera House youtube page. Go and check them out because they are really interesting, give you a different perspective on the work and an insight into the workings of a professional ballet.

Although I’m definitely no expert on ballet, what I will say is that the power and agility of the dancers is very evident over the big screen, particularly Natalia Osipova whose poise and elegance is just insane. It’s hard not to appreciate the physicality of the double swan role as Odette and Odile, despite how easy it’s made to look. It’s great to see close up shots and different perspectives that really help to keep track of the narrative, if you’re a novice like me, as well as seeing all the nuances which you wouldn’t be able to sat at the back of the Royal Opera House.

Another aspect that I hadn’t counted on was the immediacy of the audience feedback through social media, something that the screening itself promoted. The moment the intervals started many people turned to their phones to see what was happening on twitter and #ROHswanlake actually trended worldwide. It’s phenomenal that we’re now able to connect on such a huge scale with such immediate effect.

For me this was a great way to be introduced to ballet and makes performances like this much more accessible. At £17 the tickets were high for a cinema, but much more affordable than booking at the Royal Opera House and adding in travel into London. If you’re looking for an introduction to ballet, or simply can’t make the trip to see it, then the cinema is the perfect alternative.

The following week I was back on more familiar territory as I went to see Maxine Peake as Hamlet, a pre-recorded performance from the Manchester Royal Exchange. The cinema screening worked particularly well for this work as it was set in the round, allowing the cinema audience the luxury of all angles. Once again it was a pretty full audience who probably enjoyed the fact that they had more leg room than in most theatres… although I really didn’t appreciate the person who took 10 hours to unwrap the crinkliest wrapped sweet on earth.

The actual performance was incredible with a stellarHamlet quote cast. Maxine Peake plays a very young Hamlet, stark and brutal, but with a sharp wit. The performance is edgy and plays off the cast very well, seeming alienated from all, except from maybe Thomas Arnold as Horatio, a relationship I think works very naturally. I also enjoyed Katie West’s performance as Ophelia, wounded and innocent, devastated by the loss of her (in this production) mother, dissolving into a very distressing madness scene. The only cast member I felt disappointed in was Ashley Zhangazha as Laertes. For me he never seemed to quite settle into the role, seeming almost too wild. However I thought the ensemble as a whole was great, focussing wholly on Hamlet’s revenge. Once again I thought this work translated well onto the screen, except for one very odd slow motion moment, a liberty from the editor that did little and seemed out of place.

You can now count me an advocate for screening theatre. I think it’s another route into live performance and is very accessible. There is such a great range of work being screened that anyone can find something they will enjoy. Over the summer there will be screenings of National Theatre’s Everyman starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, English National Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance, and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Merchant of Venice to name but a few. So have a look, try something new, and see what you think.

Under the Vaulted Sky – Rosemary Lee

Today I want to tell you about my absolute favourite performance from IF: Milton Keynes International Festival 2014, Rosemary Lee‘s Under the Vaulted Sky, a new commission for the festival.

The performance was set in the beautiful Cathedral of Trees, a very tranquil setting with trees planted in the architectural footprint of Norwich Cathedral. A combination of dance and live music, with a community cast of over 100 dancers and musicians, Under the Vaulted Sky was breathtaking.

Over the course of the performance you are guided through the Cathedral, entering different sections, sitting for a while to watch groups of children present delicate leaves in wooden boxes filled with grass, walking the length of the tree cathedral as bells ring and dancers with bells attached to their dresses tinkle as they run by…

The use of music, composed by Terry Mann, and sound is very cleverly crafted throughout. Each cast member has a bell for the opening sequence. Dressed in red gowns the dancers, nymph-like, seem to invoke the air around us, combining movement and the ringing of bells to move the air and bring the sense of the cathedral to life. Just as you feel the weight of history around you in a stone cathedral, here you feel emotions well inside you as the sheer beauty and simplicity of the piece overwhelms you.

Hugo Glendinning

Photo: Hugo Glendinning

We were then led through to the cloisters where children presented us with golden leaves as gongs and drums are played to the rhythm of the dancing. The whole audience of around 100 people sits quietly, not saying a word, taking in everything that is happening.

Being led through the archway around the outside of the cathedral to come in at the top we pass through members of the cast. This for me was the most moving part. With bugles being played in the distance the dancers would walk up to members of the audience as they passed, whispering about pathways to the stars and handing these pathways as tokens of small circular mirrors… This gave you a moments reflection before heading back into the cathedral.

Under the Vaulted SkyIn the chancel we are surrounded by dancers being crowned with gold hands as brass instruments play fanfares, before being lead back down the cathedral under golden books suspended in the treetops. At the crossing we disperse to the sides as dancers open gold sheets, dressing the trees. Finally the dancers line the way out with their eyes closed, in a world of their own, ethereal…

This delicate performance invoked both the strength of the cathedral and the fragility of the bells to enclose the audience in it’s atmosphere. There is a poignancy in the gold, the music, the movement… But it is up to each to experience it in their own way.