Watching Ballet in a Cinema — Second Impression

“Ballet is all about bodies, bodies in motion, about line and curve and bulge, about arms and legs and backsides, as much as it is about princes and swans. There’s no escaping it, although many hotly insist that to talk of ballet as physical and erotic is to demean the art. What shows through their indignation are signs of the age-old dilemma of integration: is sexuality something one keeps carefully apart from the other activities one engages in like eating, bathing, thinking, dancing, or even appreciating dance; or should it be integrated naturally into the fabric of human experience?”
“Dance As Dance” by Graham Jackson

About a month ago, I wrote a posting titled “Watching Ballet in a Cinema“. In it I argued that live screenings of ballet performances are spoiled by the camera cuts/editing.

After that performance (“Lady of the Camellias”), I was unsure what to do with the ticket for the second live screening I had bought (“The Taming of the Shrew”). Today, I spontaneously decided to give it another try and see the live screening of “The Taming of the Shrew”.

And boy, am I happy that I did.

I just returned home and … woaw. Still psyched.

When a live screening of a ballet performance just works

Don’t get me wrong, I still stand by words: the cuts/editing of the show ruin the performance. Ballet is communication via dance (including facial expressions) and it is best told by the dancers — without people editing what you see when, or how large. No matter how well-intentioned their contribution is or how skilled they are (and my guess is that they are extremely skilled).

But now I’ve seen that it can work out pretty well. I mean, “The Taming of the Shrew” was still edited — there were cuts — but I am pretty sure there were fewer cuts. And the ones they did, they somehow did them right.

Not sure what changed exactly. I would really love to see a comparison of the editing styles between “Lady of the Camellias” and “The Taming of the Shrew”. Especially the frequency of cuts that skip both place and distance to the dancers (i.e., a cut to a different place that has also zoomed in or out). I suspect these cuts really wreak havoc on immersion. I didn’t notice that many (any?) of these cuts in “The Taming of the Shrew”.

Instead, in “The Taming of the Shrew”, they worked a lot with panning shots. They frequently did show the dancers at about half of the screen height and followed them over the stage (usually keeping them in the vertical middle). And the panning allowed you to follow the dancers more easily, yet see everything in the necessary detail. After all, the cinema screen resolution isn’t high enough to give a good view of the whole stage.

But these panning shots, yeah, they worked. They worked incredibly well.

Of course, these are subjective impressions. I’m relying on my memories and I might be completely wrong here. It might also due to the kind of performance. “The Taming of the Shrew” was more “modern”, i.e., a minimalistic style with few decorations. There wasn’t that much happening in the background, nor that much to show (no offense to the other dancers, but I think there are performances in which the other dancers have a larger role, or where the main characters act at the same time in two different places of the stage). The focus was clear in most cases, and I didn’t notice a single instance where I wanted to focus on something else but what the camera did show.

Perhaps my expectations were a bit lower, perhaps I was more relaxed by accepting that the camera determines what I see, and perhaps I was more used to seeing a ballet performance in a cinema. But somehow it worked out.

Impression of the play itself

Frankly, “The Taming of the Shrew” is one of my favorite stories, and I think hands-down the best love story. Who cares about the infatuation of two retarded suicidal teenagers, when you have this kind of passion play out between adults. This “Why do we fit so well together?” (to quote Carey) between two outsiders, who should by all appearances have nothing in common. But who … well, complete each other.

So, I know the play (actually read Shakespeare, which is quite funny to read) and watched the ballet adaptation by Cranko in Stuttgart (see also the link in the previous paragraph).

However, the Bolshoi performance by Maillot today was strikingly different from the Cranko version. Not necessarily better or worse, just very very different.

First of all, like written, it was a more modern adaptation. Minimalistic costumes and set. I usually hate modern adaptations — I’m a sucker for beautiful dresses and decorations. I also think the dresses and set decorations add to the atmosphere, while the modern style always reminds me of gymnastics suits.

But I’ve got to admit, the minimalistic costumes and set do have their uses in ballet. After all, you see beautiful women moving gracefully in tight suits, what’s not to like? 🙂 But seriously, they allow you to focus on the dancers and their movements, this impressive performance of what the human body is capable of expressing. So yeah, I can live with both.

Actually, watching this modern performance was a bit like watching the first “South Park” movie. In the first few seconds you ask yourself: “Is this funny?” and if you go with “Hell, yeah, I just laugh about it.” you’ll have a great time. Same with this modern performance. But the question is: “Is it beautiful?”, and if you go with “Oh, yes, yes it is.”, you’ll get amazed just how beautiful it is.

Hmm, although the modern style made it more difficult for me to follow the story. Even knowing it “fairly well” I had some trouble sorting out the roles. I haven’t checked it but I also think this version is also shorter than Cranko’s version.

But I think the most striking difference was the emphasis regarding the passion of the main characters.

Crankos version was mutual teasing with a lot of humor — a very lighthearted passion. Very “innocent” and a joy to watch. I smiled and (I think) even laughed a lot.

Maillot version is full of passion too, but on a much (much, much) more physical and intense level. And waow, did the dancers manage to display that passion. It culminated in the night they spend together after their marriage and … waow. I mean, I don’t smoke, but I craved a cigarette after that scene. No wonder the performances is “Adults only”. (BTW, porn directors — watch and learn: These two dancers blew every porn scene out of the water — and they did it fully clothed. ;-)). But seriously, that was a stunning performance, an incredible display of passion. Hell, I still want a cigarette.

Image from

But yeah, a beautiful climax to the story, which set the stage for the sweet and beautiful ending.

So, all in all … if the cuts are done right (i.e., few — if any — cuts and instead a strong focus on panning), a live screening of a ballet performance in a cinema can be very, very impressive.

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