Over this last year I’ve been to see 7 cinema relays: two Sleeping Beauties (Royal Ballet & Bolshoi Ballet), an Esmerelda (Bolshoi), a La Sylphide (Boslhoi), a Romeo and Juliet (Royal), a Swan Lake (Royal) and a Nutcracker (Royal). Now the year is coming to a close I thought I’d talk a little about the virtues and pitfalls these relays provide – are they a good thing or not?
So what are the benefits of a cinema relay?
I think one of the best bits of a cinema relay is the sheer convenience of them – I can see an internationally renowned ballet company within a ten minute walk of my flat! It’s true that Bath gets the occasional ballet or dance company at its Theatre Royal (Rambert Dance Company and BalletBoyz have both visited recently) and I happily travel to London and Birmingham to see the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, and Birmingham Royal Ballet. However, I’ve never seen the Bolshoi Ballet live (although hopefully that will change when they visit London this summer!) and this is an affordable way which doesn’t require a train ticket to Moscow!
At a more essential level, whilst back home (in rural Northumberland) for Christmas I have seen that the nearest town (with a population of only 8,000) will be showing the Bolshoi’s La Bayadere in January. For a town that would never have a touring ballet company visit, and is 50 miles away from the nearest cities (Edinburgh and Newcastle), this is a great way to allow locals to experience the magic of dance. It is also a way for children at the local ballet schools to see inspirational dancing of the highest quality.
Another benefit of the cinema relays is the added insight they give into the ballets and the performers. Whilst the Bolshoi has the charismatic Katerina Novikova presenting (offering interviews with dancers and directors) the Royal tends to get the Principals to introduce the piece. Both offer you a glimpse “behind the scenes”, whether watching the dancers warm up on stage or an insightful video showing the preparations. For example, the Royal Ballet had some fantastic video showing the corps de ballet and principals preparing for the demanding Swan Lake; you can watch the whole playlist of videos below:
Having multiple cameras spread around an auditorium, cinema relays often let you watch from the best seat in the house. For the large corps de ballet sections you can have a elevated view to see the intricate patterns, but for key emotional moments or impressive Pas de Deuxs you can be right up close to the action. I think this was best demonstrated in the Royal Ballet’s broadcast of Romeo & Juliet last year. It is no secret that I am in love with MacMillan’s masterpiece, and consider it the greatest ballet ever created. I had already seen the cast involved with the relay at the ROH, but found the relay probably more powerful. The scene where Juliet decides to go see the Friar for the sleeping draught was stunning; a close up of Cuthbertson’s face allowed you to see a single tear run down her cheek which would have been missed by most of the auditorium. I am thrilled to say that recently Opus Arte announced that the Cuthbertson/Bonelli Romeo & Juliet will be released on DVD in Spring 2013 – I’ll be first in line to buy one!
Cinema relays are also, generally, reasonably priced. At around £15 for a ticket they are a little pricier than a regular cinema ticket, but are cheaper than opera relays (the Met relays cost £30 a pop at my local cinema). Whilst the ticket is more expensive than the ones I get at the Royal Opera House (usually around £4-8), once you factor in the cost of travel it works out much cheaper (and way cheaper than a flight to Moscow!).
So it can’t all be good, can it?
One of my biggest problems with cinema relays is an artifact of the benefit of multiple cameras. With a relay, you often have no choice in where your attention goes. Recalling the Romeo & Juliet relay, there is a particular moment in the opening scene where Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio are drinking from a jug; Malvolio knocks it as Benvolio drinks and the trio laugh at this little prank. It isn’t a key moment, but one of my favourite parts and the lightheartedness is a great contrast to the tone of the ballet as the story progresses. However, in the cinema the cameras chose to concentrate on the harlots at this point and it was missed entirely – a small detail but something I’d have liked to have seen.
Another big complaint among my twitter followers is the noise at cinema recordings. I haven’t had any trouble with this, but others have spoken of fighting the munch of popcorn, slurp of fizzy drinks, and the adjacent screen’s action movie to hear the relay. One thing that does bother me is that the relaxed atmosphere seems to make it more socially acceptable to talk during the performance, especially during the orchestral overture (although I’ve had people talking during the Act II introduction of Swan Lake at The Met and the ROH too). Personally, I feel the overture is part of the performance, a chance to appreciate the stunning orchestra, and a way to set the mood so don’t talk during it, ever.
I was always worried that the cinema wouldn’t feel ‘special’, but I personally find the ‘magic’ of live ballet comes through well in the relays, albeit slightly diluted, although others disagree. One amusing problem with cinema relays is the awkward question of whether to applaud or not. As the performers will be unable to hear the applause people are unsure if clapping is appropriate, resulting in a half-effort smattering of applause. I’m still unsure what the ‘correct’ protocol is, but I personally tend to applaud great performances: the dancer may not hear, but it is a way to show my appreciation.
Finally, there is the issue of cost. Although cheaper than a trip to the ROH or Bolshoi Theatre, it still isn’t a particularly cheap night out. I invited one of my friends who enjoys opera to come to see La Sylphide, but he declined when he saw the £15 price, saying he would prefer to buy a ballet DVD instead: perhaps what seems cheap to a balletomane isn’t so cheap for someone who is unsure if they will enjoy the performance. There are ways to make it more affordable however: Odeon offers discounts for its Premiére Club members, and the ROH have recently had promotions with Patisserie Valerie and the Telegraph offering “2-for-1″ vouchers.
So, in summary, I think cinema relays are fantastic! They allow a wide audience to see ballets and dancers that are completely new to them, as well as letting them re-experience ones they already know. They are an affordable way to see ballet from the best seats in the house and, whilst sometimes the camera angle might not be exactly where you wish, they offer an unparalleled view of world class dancing. The insights offered in the intervals make it a truly great afternoon/night.
On top of this, you simply cannot deny the growing popularity of these relays. Last season, Romeo & Juliet was the Royal Ballet’s most-watched live relay since their inception (watched by over 16,000 people in 150 cinemas across the UK) and their recent Nutcracker screening was the 2nd most watched film in the UK that day (behind The Hobbit), The Mariinsky are also offering a live 3D Nutcracker this holiday season and there are repeats of the Bolshoi and New York City Ballet versions at various cinemas. I know of at least six companies that are offering, or have offered, live relays over the last couple of years: the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Mikhailovsky Ballet, New York City Ballet, and Nederlands Dans Theatre. Here’s hoping more join in the future – which companies would you like to see at your local cinema?
Until next time, have a very Merry Christmas and festive Holiday Season – and keep on dancing!