It’s said that good art makes us uncomfortable; it can shake us out of our happily held preconceived notions or trigger visceral emotion. After a full weekend binge watching ballet performances from my living room—thanks to streaming initiatives undertaken by ballet companies everywhere in response to the pandemic—I’ve realized that in the environments where we fully engage with art, we usually start off a little bit uncomfortable. Physically, that is. Our dresses and dinner jackets are a tad too tight when we sit down at the theater. We’re too hot or too cold or the chair is too hard. The person in front of us is coughing too loudly. Today, we would burn public coughers at the stake for not staying home. But with the entire performing arts world suspended, we’re all at home—yes, in our comfort zones—for the foreseeable future.
Moviegoers have been opting for home viewing before it was forced upon them. Some called the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on Netflix the canary in the coalmine for the end of movie theaters. COVID-19 was the sooner-than-expected cave-in. Can streaming be a sustainable business model for ballet?
Of course, stage works aren’t crafted with the camera frame in mind. There are dances made for film that choreograph the camera’s movement as part of the piece rather than limiting it to proscenium framing. (I recommend Scottish Ballet’s Tremble from its 2019 Digital Season, then watching three hours from your day disappear perusing the company’s YouTube channel.)
But that’s not what I’m writing about. I want to know about live performances—best viewed at the theater—but also enjoyable, hopefully, at home. Thus, I have my sweatpants on, a mug of tea in hand, and I’ve signed up to see if I can get onboard with regular ballet viewing from my couch.
To begin, I make a fatal mistake. I tune into Bolshoi Ballet’s Marco Spada at 1pm in the afternoon on Saturday.1 I wanted the communal experience, the feeling of watching with thousands of others for the “premiere” at 7pm Moscow time. What I got was a bright midday glare on my screen.
The Bolshoi’s production value is very good, with sharp, clear shots and multiple camera angles. I can tell that Olga Smirnova’s eyelashes are fake and can see the sweat glisten like diamonds on her regal forehead. But I’m instantly and continuously annoyed by framing choices that cut off her feet or the corps de ballet’s formations. It’s a tradeoff I haven’t reconciled. I’d never be able to see the dancers’ faces this clearly from the seats I can usually afford, but I also fully believe that the corps tableau behind the principals—men and women sautéing and swirling in and out of perfectly spaced arrangements in complete unison—is integral to the art form.
Originating in 1850s France, Marco Spada is made devilishly difficult in Pierre Lacotte’s 1982 restaging, and the plot is quite silly. The real treat is seeing Evgenia Obraztsova’s effortless technique with film clarity as pure as her pointework. Can she really be that perfect? Quick camera work could prevent us from seeing a mistake. We don’t want to see flubs or falls, but while watching a PR-department approved video, we don’t hold our breath the same way we would while watching a real ballerina sail around on pointe.
Next up, I queue New York Theatre Ballet’s Living Room Series, which is releasing past performance videos every Friday during social distancing. I opted for the All Tudor Evening2 and was pleasantly surprised by the intimate viewing a chamber company offered. Unlike the Marco Spada spectacle, Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas [Lilac Garden] is a digestible poem of a piece that would almost fit staged in my living room. In the Romeo and Juliet bedroom pas de deux, dancers Elena Zahlmann and Kyle Coffman fluidly execute Tudor’s architectural lifts, and their final kiss gives me tingles. Or is that my leg falling asleep? Moments of distraction eventually creep in as the program continues, and despite a reverently danced Dark Elegies and tickling Judgement of Paris, the 2008 single-angle recording isn’t sharp enough to snap me back to attention.
For English National Ballet’s Akram Khan version of Giselle,3 presented on the Marquee TV platform, I’ve learned my lesson: to recreate a night at the ballet as closely I can. I save it for the evening, snack and drink beforehand, put my phone on airplane mode, and make my husband do the same. Though he’s no balletomane (he would have chewed through chains to get out of watching Marco Spada) his engagement is enough light at the end of this pandemic tunnel for me, and perhaps a bright one for the ballet world at large even after we’re back to our normal in-person seasons.
Khan’s Giselle is riveting. The ballet opens on the sinister tone it will retain throughout, and Khan’s version fills in gaps in the original Romantic ballet. We actually witness the fearsome Myrtha, exceptionally performed by Stina Quagebeur, pulse life back into Giselle, and the world in which she awakens isn’t some storybook forest with identical, upright sylphs. It’s a proper undead nightmare. The Wilis (spirits of maidens who died after betrayals in love) are ragged, armed with poles, and when they rise to pointe it’s a position of demonic power. Special mention should be made for Jeffrey Cirio’s athletic Hilarion and Tamara Rojo’s superior acting throughout. I’m still incredibly annoyed by camera cuts that prevent me from seeing certain steps or formations. I want to be able to decide what to look out on the stage. Overall, however, the production’s stark drama holds up on screen.
The bad news is that it could never compare to the live viewing. The chilling horn that erupts at the entrance of the royals and mid-Wilis nightmare would blare right into your soul in a surround sound theater. An immersive virtual reality ballet, like Dutch National Ballet’s 2016 Night Fall, might come close, but we’re likely a few years behind the average household owning a high-tech VR set. (The cardboard versions distort and blur the picture enough that they aren’t worth the time.) What’s more, the theater experience primes us to be at our most receptive from the outset. We dress up and shell out the ticket price for the privilege of a live dancer’s performance. The lights dim and our expectations swell as the hush falls over a room full of thousands. We’re sensitive to even the slightest whisper or rustle. In that moment just before the darkness and quiet gives way to light and music, we wouldn’t dare to even scratch and itch. We’re hardly in our comfort zones to begin with, and it’s through those alert senses that the art takes hold.
The good news? I would absolutely see Khan’s Giselle again live. Being a $8.99/month Marquee TV subscriber would not preclude me from purchasing a $300 orchestra ticket in the future. In fact, I want to see it live even more now, and I might even convince my husband to a double feature: to see the original Romantic Giselle with me, as well. Two ballets have a ticket buyer they would not have had before.
That’s for when we can return to theaters. For now, it’s our responsibility to be actively receptive when consuming art at home. Don’t kick your feet up or leave your phone on because you can. Sit erect, sit alert, make an evening of it—give the artists the attention they’ve trained to earn—no matter what room you are in.
- Marco Spada April 4th, YouTube Bolshoi Theatre Channel
- “All-Tudor Evening,” Released March 19th, Vimeo, New York Theatre Ballet Channel
- Giselle, Released April 4th, Marquee TV