Popcorn and sugarplums

With a wall of 58 televisions and 11 pairs of eyes glued to them, digital clocks flicking off the seconds, and a chain of command that ended with a man pressing a button on a blinking console, the narrow, windowless trailer might have been a submarine on a special mission. And indeed the New York City Ballet, allied with Live at Lincoln Center, was engaged in serious business: namely, at 1800 hours on December 13, live-streaming Balanchine’s The Nutcracker to 595 cinemas across the US, the company’s first venture into cinecasting. (The recorded version hits picture-houses this week and next in the UK, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Iceland and Australia.)

This new gambit is not as risky as it would have been had City Ballet’s neighbour, the Metropolitan Opera, not pioneered these high-definition broadcasts five years ago. As the transmissions grew from four productions in 100 cinemas to 12 on 1,200 screens last season, fears that they would cut into the audience at the opera house have proven unfounded. The Met has simply added 2.2m remote viewers, who some day may even go on pilgrimage to the source.

Nor is NYCB the first to stream dance. The Royal, Paris Opera and Bolshoi Ballets beat it to the punch by a couple of years, and have also enjoyed success, albeit on a more modest scale than the Met. Since their North American distributor Emerging Pictures established its Ballet in Cinema series a year ago, the number of screens in the territory has doubled to 250, and in one instance quadrupled – when American Ballet Theater principal David Hallberg debuted with the Bolshoi last month.

Still, it is daunting to launch a project with such an elaborate and expensive infrastructure for a “nichey” and diffuse target audience, points out Kurt Hall, chief executive of NCM Fathom, the Met’s and this Nutcracker’s US distributor.

So what’s the trick? How do you lure opera and ballet fans to the movies?

One successful tactic, borrowed from sports, is to capitalise on the live aspect. When I am stumbling into a darkened cinema at 11am on a bright Sunday morning in New York, I can think of the lady in Moscow taking her plush seat at the Bolshoi. Simultaneity shrinks the 4,700 miles between me with my corn chips and reheated cheese dip and her with her flute of champagne. According to Hall, the audience shrinks by 70 per cent for the non-live “encore” screenings.

At the Regal Union Square Stadium 14 last Tuesday, though, where the little girls in party dresses were the spitting image of the little girls at Lincoln Center except for the tubs of popcorn in their laps, it wasn’t until halfway through the first act that I remembered I was watching a live ballet, transpiring two miles up the street. When we at the multiplex laughed at the slain Mouse King overcome by cartoon rigor mortis, we could hear our laughter echoed onscreen. But it was not the live factor – “the eventness of the event”, as Alan Skog, director of Live at Lincoln Center and this Nutcracker, puts it – that made the movie worthwhile, it was the treatment of the ballet.

Jumping the moat of the orchestra pit to invade the stage, the camera did not bring out ballet’s ritual and ceremonial aspects – “the eventness” – so much as the homey, handmade and human: 10-year-old Colby Clark’s prince expertly managing both his sword and his gangly legs; the real terror on one girl’s cherubic face as her pretend father whisked her from her hiding place under Marie’s petticoats; the dozens of tiny bells stitched on to Daniel Ulbricht’s Old World Candy Cane costume; and Marie (Fiona Brennan) stroking the fighter bunny’s upright ear for good luck before her battle against the monstrous mice.

The movie also illuminated details in the dancing. Backstage at intermission, the perky talk show host Kelly Ripa asked principal Megan Fairchild if she had always wanted to be the Sugarplum Fairy. She said no, she had simply wanted whatever role fitted her at the time, whether mouse or Marie. During the ballet’s climactic pas de deux, you could see how this enduring faith in the humble present shaped her dancing. As her cavalier Joaquin De Luz paused while promenading her in arabesque, she looked into his eyes – a silent, necessary communication. The multiplex crowd cheered when the duo’s circle was complete. I could hear them cheering in the theatre, too, but there they were responding to the conclusion of the long arc of movement, which the camera had cut up; they couldn’t see this single intimate moment like we could.

One approach to filming performance “is that you are documenting the fact that this event is happening”, explains Kristin Sloan – the New York City Ballet’s first new-media director, until 2009, who helped develop its $9m media suite. “The other approach is it’s an interpretation and a contribution to the art form.” When the dancing began in earnest, in Act 2, Live at Lincoln Center’s stationary cameras – on the proscenium’s periphery to emulate audience sightlines – could not keep up. Jump cuts, pans and zooms no longer sufficed; the film was merely documenting.

To reproduce the kinetic thrill of dancing seen in the flesh, the camera needs to move with the action, as in the Bolshoi’s superlative transmissions. That camera glides along the lip of the stage after the soloists. To capture the vast, sacrosanct stage, it rolls backwards, widening the view – slow time a metaphor for open space. With a bit more leeway, it could shoot the designs that put the “graph” in “choreography” from above and below, à la Busby Berkeley, or from the wings.

If the promise of a live show gets people to the multiplex, fine – let New York City Ballet install a “live studio audience” to watch the shoot. But what will get people to return – and from there to seek out all manner of ballet – is a camera free to exercise its powers as editor, magnifier, eyeball on wheels, and mind.


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