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Flash Report, 8-2: A Balmy Night in London-town
In the Piazza with the Birds and Royal Ballet's 'Swan,' by Relay

By Colleen Teresa Bartley
Copyright 2001 Colleen Teresa Bartley

LONDON -- A live relay of the Royal Ballet's production of outgoing artistic director Anthony Dowell's 1987 staging of Petipa/Ivanov's "Swan Lake" in the Covent Garden piazza Monday combined with the balmy yes, balmy London weather to mesmerize a crowd of about 5,000.

The event, sponsored by British Petrol, tickled the senses and proved popular as entertainment, cultural enrichment, and means for trying something new. The section of the piazza closest to the Opera House was completely full. A blanket of people sat on the ground spreading the length from the edge of the stage (behind rows of chairs for those unable to sit on the ground) to the end of the piazza and across the width of the entrance to the edge of the covered part of the nearby market. More people stood a few layers thick on each side, and others sat gazing from the roof garden of the cafe set opposite the Royal Opera House and from the adjacent restaurant.

With a running time of almost three hours, the presentation included the four-act ballet, a short film about its production and a dance film by Terry Braun. Initially it seemed a long time to expect people to pay attention while crouched on cobblestones or standing in the heat, but it turned out to be perfect.

More than one member of the audience expressed a sense of freedom in being able to watch the performance outdoors. A relaxed atmosphere resulted from an open sky, a soft breeze and quiet chatter. Groups of people including families, lovers, friends, and single people brought picnic foods, blankets, and various other beverages. The group in front of me shared champagne and strawberries.

The outdoor atmosphere fit with the dancing. I watched spectacular shifts of color and of cloud formations in the sky as the light changed with the setting sun over the piazza. At several points during the performance, two or three birds glided overhead as if on cue. Everything seemed to be in synch.

People-watching was part of the whole experience. I was positioned at a point at the middle of the piazza, behind the barriers that let a steady flow of people pass through the crowd. People from all walks of life made their way through the milling spectators and caught glimpses of the screen before being nudged to "keep moving" by security officers, but not before engaging with the music and dance in their own unique ways.

I watched small children point and squeal at the screen, almost wiggling out of the arms of their caretakers. Several determined businessmen coyly stole a peek while pretending not to be interested in the Ballet. One woman ducked as if to stay out of the sight lines. Two inspired young women placed arms in fifth position and tiptoed their way across the walkway. One flamboyant gay man spontaneously began his own dance to the delight of the crowd.

Equally entertaining was the dance of recognition as people located each other in the masses with the aid of their mobile phones. One could watch them scan the crowd with squinted eyes and the mobile pressed to the ear until contact was made, usually followed by an excited wave and a giant smile.

It was curiously engaging to watch live dance on a giant screen. I've viewed dance on video. I've seen live dance performance. I had never before witnessed live dance on screen.

At first glance, the fixed gaze of hundreds of individuals toward the screen resembled the zoned-out state that results from watching television in a waiting room -- that mindless, detached, brain-dead state of being. But upon more careful observation, one witnessed a sea of people fully engaged with the performance. Instead of a sense of energy being sucked towards the screen, there was a more diffused energy in the air, in people's bodies, even in the clouds. The gentleman in front of me hummed aloud to Tchaikovsky's score, others closed eyes, and some swayed. One infant clutched the thumbs of his young mother as she bounced his arms in time with the musical strains while singing into his delightfully animated face.

The live relay shared aspects of a televised sporting event, because the cameraperson and director made decisions about which actions to focus in on. For those unfamiliar with the story the crowd included many obvious first-time ballet-goers -- this aided the storytelling.

The close camerawork brought to light the distinctions between performance for the camera and performance for the stage. The exaggerated classical arm and facial gestures which work so effectively on stage, in a large auditorium, seemed over-emotive when viewed close up. However, at times the close-ups brought a sense of intimacy to the performance.

The big screen format was used to its full "commercial" potential and in this way reminded me of television propaganda. Complete with trumpeted fanfare and promotional information, there was a pre- show televised "tour" of facilities at the Royal Opera House , a showcase of the upcoming season (resembling movie previews) as well as interviews with principal dancers Miyako Yoshida (Odette/Odile in Monday's performance) and Inaki Urlezaga (Prince Siegfried).

After Acts I & II, during the first interval, a short "behind the scenes" film showed rehearsals of the principal dancers, interviews with the outgoing director, Sir Anthony Dowell whose own swan song with the Royal is tonight -- and with the costume designer. Details such as that each female dancer is allocated ten pairs of pointe shoes per month or that over 4,700 designs are made every year were highlights.

Yoshida interview elaborates on her relationship with the swan roles, explaining that her Black Swan is more confident. Inaki Urlezaga spoke of the Opera's wonderful physiotherapy facilities and the sense of home he has felt since returning from touring. Their enthusiastic passionate words further glamorized the ballet world.

During the second interval, Deborah Bull was featured in a film on the Artists' Development Initiative, which she directs. It's dedicated to developing and new collaborations at ROH, of which there have been over 200 with choreographers, dancers, writers, and actors. "Duo:logue," a film directed by Terry Braun, featured clips from three pieces choreographed by Wayne McGregor, a participant of ADI, and performed by members of his company, Random, as well as members of the Royal Ballet.

The choreography in the film was typical of McGregor's style. He uses super-virtuosic dancers dressed in sleek sexy costumes executing technically challenging material with lots of extensions -- creeping, slinky movement with sudden flicks and unnatural pauses. His work is like ballet on acid.

For all of the splendor of the evening, there was a peculiar moment, as I looked up above the screen and above the piazza to see people on the balcony, drinks in hand, looking down on the crowd. It was an odd sensation to be observed. There was a sense of superiority and privilege from the people above. I suddenly had an understanding of the experience of the groundling. Groundling is the term for the commonfolk who paid very little for entrance into a venue in the 1600s -- such as the Globe Theatre, to watch the works of Shakespeare. Those who could afford seats sat up and around the sides which surrounded the stage and looked down on the groundlings.

A modern version of this occurs at Sadler's Wells, another recently restored venue for dance. It has adopted a scheme for certain performances of Rambert Dance Company in which the first few sections of seating are removed to create standing room for people for 5 lira, or about $3 U.S. . This, like "Swan Lake" relayed live, is an attempt to broaden audiences.

But what of the performance?

The quality of this production was deserving of the Royal Ballet name. The ballet seemed part of a larger dance experience of the evening. The original choreography was by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. In Dowell's production, David Bintley was responsible for the Waltz in Act I and Frederick Ashton for the Neapolitan Dance in Act III . With masterful lighting design, gorgeous costumes, stunning virtuosic dancing, and exquisite music conducted by Andrea Quinn, the performance was well-integrated.

The overriding feeling created was lush and enchanting. The layering of costuming, set design, choreography and music was fluid and soothing. The rich purples, fiery reds and oranges, luscious greens in the costumes, off-set by the midnight black and pure snowy whites, provided a rich feast for the eyes. Glimpses of color appeared as legs kicked revealing underlaying fabric. Costumes were layered with different fabrics and colors, often a bright color contrasted with a velvety black. Intricate bead work and studded sparkles added glitter and elegance. In the case of the female swans, the layers aided the tattered, feathery flowing imagery and highlighted the movement. Most of the head pieces were woven -- they appeared quite organic and matched the woven aspects of the set design.

Each set had regal stature in height and dramatic tone. The opening set had glass balls hanging which resembled dew drops or sparkling stars in the woven overhanging piece above. Mesh curtains gave a sense of misty lakes and forest during Act II and in the final scene which has the couple bathed in blue light, resting on a wave-like set but separated from the rest of the cast by a mesh screen.

The set for the costume ball during Act III was particularly spectacular. At the center was a large curved oval mirror with wing like sides which hung above a wide staircase. The cast entered from the back of the staircase, met centrally, and descended the stairs to the main part of the stage. What became visible was the person from the front and the back simultaneously. The effect in the mirror was surreal and added to the carnivalesque sense of mystery. Shadows and images of Odile, the Black Swan were seen looming overhead in this mirror, as were images of the Prince dancing with her. It is also in this mirror that the Odette appears as a warning to the Prince.

The emphasis during this act was on spectacle. The audience particularly loved the character dances during the masquerade, which included variations of folk dances from other European countries. The favorite seemed to be a gypsy dance duet with tambourines which was more humorous, clowny and light than the Russian and Spanish dances.

What stood out in Act IV for me was the staging. Odette appeared centrally with the other swans around her in two protective rings, this tableau repeated in several variations. The moment that Prince Siegfried reached for Odette for the last time before her death, she was hidden behind four others, who first stood closely huddled together and then unfolded like flower petals to reveal her nestled amongst them.

A quick poll of the people in the audience revealed that the budding ballerinas that studded the audience were not the only ones completely starry-eyed about the evening's events. For ballet lovers, the eveningās performance reinforced their desire for dance. For those who were at the Ballet for the first time, it inspired new passions.

The businessman who stood behind raved that it was the best production of "Swan Lake" he'd ever seen.

The strawberry blonde in front of me said to her friends, "When I was four, I played Odette in a production, my mother was so proud." She was practically on her toes the entire evening. She phoned a friend during the second act to share her excitement and held the handset in the air so he could hear some of the music.

An Australian man in his early 20s said to his tipsy pals, "That was really cool."

A young-looking woman excitedly shared that she's seen "hundreds" of ballets but never "Swan Lake." She swooned.

Others came out of curiosity, or for the free art. A young German woman read about it in Metro and decided to come because it was free. The only other dance she'd attended was at Sadler's Wells, during a 5 lira promotion.

A couple of middle-aged friends shared that one had heard about the performance on the radio, and they decided to come because the weather was nice.

Two young women who work in London but are from Liverpool raved about the event. One sounded as if she wrote the publicity for the education and outreach and access program of the Royal Opera House. She said that they came because it was free. One of their friends sent an email around about the live relay . Some had seen ballet before, others hadn't. They decided to make a night of it. Although one has a sister who is a ballerina, she hadn't yet considered seeing a ballet at the Royal Opera House. "I wouldn't have come unless it was free," she said. "It was an opportunity to have a look before deciding whether or not to buy a ticket. I would happily do so after tonight."

This woman went on to say that this event made ballet accessible and that performance arts such as theatre and Ballet are on a pedestal. She and her friends enjoyed that that they could sit out on the cobbles, drink some wine, and not feel pressure to have to be "informed" about the ballet. One said, "You don't feel like you'll be quizzed, you can just enjoy yourself." She stressed the importance of making art accessible to people.

Both spoke of a gap in arts provision in London as compared to their experience in Liverpool. "Since we've moved here from Liverpool, we haven't done anything like this. We don't meet in town, we can't afford to." Apparently the cost of theatre and dance in Liverpool is the same as the cinema and people feel free to enjoy any of these activities equally. They said that events like this as much more commonplace in Liverpool.

Pirouettes in the Piazza, as the company dubbed the evening, inspired an amazing turnout (pun intended). On all levels it was a success. Although the crowd thinned after each interval, a significant portion of the outdoor audience stayed for the curtain call. I initially imagined the die hard dance fans ( all ten of us) would be the only ones left standing huddled side by side in an empty piazza amidst the rubbish. But I was gladly mistaken. After the rainfall of applause, which echoed in the square supplemented by the amplified applause from the main auditorium, some people made headway to beat the tube rush, but most serenely rose from their seats on the cobblestones. They waited with calm energy and dreamy eyes as the principal performers traveled from the main-stage to the outdoor stage to receive more accolades. Only then did the crowd disperse, slipping off home into the night almost as smoothly as the swans.

There are up to nine more similar events planned over the next two years.

If you prefer to sit in the theatre, you might try to book tickets for A Celebration Programm, which features Ashton's "The Dream," "The Sleeping Beauty -- Awakening pas de deux," and other works. The program takes place August tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. San Francisco Ballet tours to Covent Garden August 13 18. For more information, check the Royal Opera House web site.


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