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Flash Report, 8-2: A Balmy Night
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
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
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
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
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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