Pixels and pirouettes: Live ballet in movie theaters


Image from the movie ‘The Nutcracker’ performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, which is being presented as part of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center's ‘Ballet In Cinema’ series. (Courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet)

Ballet fans, rejoice: Movie technology has come to your rescue. At the very least, it can help salve a recent wound. You know the one I’m talking about — the history-making news that hit many of us so hard, the recent announcement by Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet that it has hired David Hallberg, star of American Ballet Theatre, as its first foreign principal dancer. When we got over the shock, stateside enthusiasts of the leggy, boyishly blond Hallberg — one of ballet’s reigning charmers — prepared for withdrawal.

But all is not lost! Hallberg’s poetic skills may be breaking hearts half a world away, but you can still watch him live, even larger than life. Through the miracle of satellites and pixels, ticketholders can see his Nov. 20 performance in the Bolshoi’s “The Sleeping Beauty” in real time on a big screen at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. (Live in Moscow means 11 a.m. here. But you can bring your coffee into the theater.)

That “Sleeping Beauty” is part of the AFI’s inaugural “Ballet in Cinema” series, which it rolls out starting Sunday. The theater’s “Opera in Cinema” series got started this month. Among the ballets will be live Bolshoi performances of “Esmeralda,” based on the Victor Hugo story of gypsies, softhearted police and an unholy deacon, and, in addition to the Russian version, a Royal Ballet production of “The Sleeping Beauty.” Each ballet will be screened live, followed a few days later by one or more “encore” installments of the same show. The week before Christmas, there will also be five showings of the Bolshoi’s “Nutcracker.”

As you’d expect from these two world-class companies, the casting is top-notch: The dark beauty Maria Alexandrova, known for her thrilling jump, takes on the title role in “Esmeralda.” (Washington audiences may recall her ebullient flirtations in various “Don Quixotes” at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap.) In “The Sleeping Beauty,” Hallberg will pair up with Svetlana Zakharova, a showboat of great charm and warmth. Leading English-born ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson helms the Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty,” in the production the company brought to the Kennedy Center in 2006. Headlining the Bolshoi’s “Nutcracker” are the delicate classicist Nina Kaptsova as Marie and Artem Ovcharenko as the Nutcracker Prince.

The opera series began with “Adriana Lecouvreur” from the Royal Opera House; next month viewers can see its “Tosca” with Angela Gheorghiu and in December, La Scala’s “Don Giovanni” with Anna Netrebko.


Image from the movie ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ performed by the Bolshoi Ballet, which is being presented as part of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center's ‘Ballet In Cinema’ series. (Bausova/Courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet)
Technological advances

Live broadcasts of opera have not been uncommon — the Metropolitan Opera has been beaming its “Live in HD” series to cinemas for the past six years. But why has it taken so long to get ballet — not a Hollywood copy, but the real thing — in the movie theater? Mostly, it’s economics. Before digital projections, it was prohibitively expensive to film a ballet and ship 35mm prints to moviehouses for only one or two showings. The costs couldn’t be recouped without the mass audiences that mainstream movies draw.

For about the past decade, digital recording and satellite feeds have made it possible to beam live shows directly into movie theaters without the expense of making and shipping prints. But insiders say that only in the past few years have the cameras and projection equipment gotten cheap enough for both the ballet companies and the indie arthouses open to giving dance a chance. (Not surprisingly, it’s the biggest ballet companies that can afford to install the high-tech gear in their home theaters — which is why we’ll be getting Bolshoi and Royal Ballet transmissions.)

Can ballet broadcasts help the popcorn-and-performing-arts trend catch on? It was only when ballet became part of the package offered by a distributor called Emerging Pictures that AFI Director of Programming Todd Hitchcock signed on for the broadcasts. He was thinking of the successes he’d had with past ballet-oriented screenings: “La Danse,” Frederick Wiseman’s revelatory documentary about the Paris Opera Ballet, the recently restored classic “The Red Shoes” and the long-running hit “The Black Swan.” The cinematic connections were there, he thought — enough to wager that live feeds of stage performances could drive ballet buffs to his box office.

“It was just a gut reaction,” Hitchcock said. “I just had this hunch it might be a somewhat younger audience than the opera audience, and an underserved audience in terms of their options” for enjoying dance. Hitchcock is betting that seeing ballet “at the movie theater might not be an obstacle to them.”

The AFI is one of about 200 theaters in North America to show the live ballet and opera titles of the New York-based Emerging Pictures. In this area, the West End Cinema on M Street NW and the Phoenix Theatres Worldgate 9 in Herndon are screening some of the feeds, as well.

By happy coincidence, one of the cinemas to sign up for the ballet series is the Carmike Rapid City 10 in South Dakota — home town of David Hallberg, the dancer who just signed with the Bolshoi. In a funny way, Hallberg’s latest move brings him closer to home: Now childhood friends who never made it to the Met or the Kennedy Center to see him dance will get their chance.

Here’s how it works: Emerging Pictures installs a satellite dish on the movie theater’s roof and a special server in its projection booth. The theater is now ready to screen live performances and can also store them to play again. Think of it as Dish Network on a larger scale.

Emerging Pictures launched its first ballet series last year and says demand has been high.

‘A perfect marriage’

Ballet and cinemas are “a perfect marriage,” says Ira Deutchman, managing partner of Emerging Pictures. The union offers more than cheap seats, he says.

“It’s really about seeing one of the great ballet companies in the world in their home setting. . . . You’re participating in something that feels like a real event, something that people all over the globe are watching at same time.”

How does the screen version of a ballet stack up against the real thing? As you know if you’ve seen any amount of dance in a movie, much depends on the camerawork. Emerging Pictures swears by the quality of its presentations, recorded through multiple cameras around the stage. Just as the dancers rehearse, so does the director, to cut smoothly between closeups and full-stage shots.

Indeed, a DVD the company sent me of a Bolshoi production of “The Flames of Paris,” rechoreographed by Alexei Ratmansky after the original by Vasily Vaynonen, was quite persuasive testimony to the sensitivity of the camerawork. At no point was it distracting; there was a sense of being onstage with the dancers at appropriate moments and yet the legendary vastness of the Bolshoi stage was also projected, in all its glory. That sense of hugeness felt like a metaphor for the escapist thrill that large-scale dancing of this order offers.

“There are times when the camera can capture things you might miss if you saw it live,” Deutchman says. “In effect, this puts you in the best seat in the house.”

Hitchcock agrees. This isn’t your parents’ grainy bug-size ballet on public television. (Much as we loved that so.) “Scale counts, and sound quality, and the immersive experience of being in a darkened theater,” he says.

And who knows? There’s no end to what could be beamed live into cinemas; rock concerts and celebrity appearances are already there. For movie houses, digital technology and live feeds are the connective tissue of the future.

If it all succeeds — how sweet will it be that ballet has gotten in on the ground floor?

“I think we’re signing up at a good time,” Hitchcock says. “It’s taking off, but this is just the beginning.”

Schedule of the AFI Silver Theatre’s “Ballet in Cinema” series:

“Esmeralda” Live from the Bolshoi Ballet: Oct. 9, 11 a.m.; Oct. 13, 6:30 p.m.

“The Sleeping Beauty” Live from the Bolshoi Ballet: Nov. 20, 10 a.m.; Nov. 21, 6:30 p.m.

“The Sleeping Beauty” Live from the Royal Ballet: Dec. 15, 2:30 p.m.; Dec. 15, 6:30 p.m.; Dec. 17, 10 a.m.

“The Nutcracker” from the Bolshoi Ballet: Dec. 18, 3 p.m.; Dec. 19, 2 p.m.; Dec. 20, 2 p.m.; Dec. 21, 2 p.m.; Dec. 22, 2 p.m.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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