One of the hot tickets of this year’s centenary celebrations commemorating Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was a recent mixed bill of Diaghilev works by the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s an unusual historical programme performed by one of the world’s great dance companies – but with the Eurotunnel down and rail and air links in chaos, luckily, fans didn’t need to go to Paris: Paris came to them.
Last night, the evening’s performance at the Paris Opéra was transmitted live to some 30 cinemas across the UK – the first of what film company Pathé-UK hopes to build into a series of live screenings of major cultural events. While this year’s similar scheme for theatre has largely been considered a success, I was curious to see if watching dance in a cinema could be a worthy substitute for a live performance. More to the point,who would go to see it?
The answer to the second question was easy: it was a dance audience, small but devoted and knowledgeable. And they were clearly delighted with the screening, which turned out to be not a substitute for performance but a different experience altogether – and, in some ways, better. As Malcolm Sleath, a long-standing dancegoer whose planned trip to Paris had been disrupted by the weather, told me, “If I’d gone to Paris this weekend, I just wouldn’t have been able to see all this.” The cameras afforded privileged sightlines he couldn’t have had in the theatre; they can take in the whole stage or zoom in to faces or footwork, showing details of expression, action and gesture that are readily dissipated in an auditorium – especially one as vast as the Paris Opera. Lisa Niedich, a ballet-lover from Hackney, agreed: “In the theatre you don’t home in on individual dancers as much. Here you can see things more specifically, like what a dancer’s feet are doing.”
To be sure, something is lost on screen – the sense of physical connection with the performance, the choice of where to look, the feeling of depth and volume – but the audience here seemed far more taken with what they had gained. “Yes, some of the freshness is lost in translation,” admitted Lisa’s 16-year-old daughter Eliana, a ballet student, “but there’s still something quite exciting about knowing that it’s happening live. And, you can see it more clearly.”
That clarity was a tribute not only to the excellent image quality – high-definition, widescreen format that showed off the vibrant designs by Bakst, Benois and Picasso – but also to sensitive editing. The cutting between shots and angles was unobtrusive, and fitted to the subject and rhythm of the dancing. True, there was one badly mistimed cut in Le Spectre de la Rose (instead of the famous final leap off stage we caught a glimpse of leg disappearing through the window) but for the most part, the camerawork stuck to what must have been a carefully thought-out script.
Still, filming couldn’t flatter all the dances. It worked particularly well with the sculptural shapes, deliberate actions and limpid storyline of L’Après-midi d’un Faune but the hustle and bustle of Le Tricorne merged into a kind of general hubbub: there was too much action to follow, and in trying to do so the camera lost contact with its spectators.
Of course, the bottom line is not how you film, but what. For David Lowden, another audience member, the evening’s performance was “a great production by a first-class company – and not expensive for what you get.” At about £20 for a ticket, prices are steep for regular cinema, though less so compared with theatre (especially for good seats); although everyone I spoke to agreed it was worth the price.
And me? I really enjoyed it; L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Petrushka in particular were outstanding. There weren’t in fact many of us there – only about 40 – but that made the experience feel informal and intimate rather than empty and depressing, as it might have been in the theatre. At the interval I ordered a mug of tea and a brownie, put my feet up and snuggled into my seat. It was like having the cinema, the theatre and the sofa in front of the telly all rolled into one: a night out and a night in at the same time.