Ballet in all its Glory -
and Dimensions

 

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Article: Olga Sherwood

 

The Mariinsky Theatre, together with British company Glass Slipper Live Events and American company Cameron Pace (CPG), is preparing a world first: a live broadcast of ballet in 3D.

 

The announcement of the forthcoming event (originally scheduled for February and then postponed to June) was a surprise to everyone - apart from sports fans throughout the world, who already enjoy matches and tournaments in live 3D, even on their screens at home.

 

Many ballet lovers have seen Wim Wenders’ remarkable film ‘Pina’ (2011), filmed in 3D; the picture had a budget of 3.2 million euros and unexpectedly took 14.6 million dollars – proving that the relatively sophisticated art of contemporary dance was attracting new followers.

 

True, we know Alexander Sukurov’s 2002 film ‘Russian Ark’, shot in the imperial interiors of the Winter Palace in a single, 90 minute take, ‘reportage’ style – that is without any cuts or retakes, similar to live broadcasting.  However, a film can be watched at any time – and in 2002, we were still a long way off 3D cinema.

 

Yet to attempt a live broadcast of classical ballet – an art form of such delicate composition, precise movement and specific poses – in the format of ‘live 3D’, is little short of astonishing.

 

Astonishing, rather, for everyone apart from the Mariinsky Theatre, which, as is well-known, is increasingly focused on the possibilities of new technology, not least in the audio-visual sphere.  We have often reported on its various innovations in this area and won’t repeat them here - suffice to say that digital recordings were pioneered there as early as 1992, and that the first attempt to record ballet in 3D was in April 2010.  Together with a St Petersburg company who were developing 3D television, they recorded a concert featuring ballet stars, and ran simultaneous broadcasts in two hired venues in London and Paris, for specialists and local press.

 

Soon afterwards, ‘Giselle’ was recorded in 3D, as was ‘The Nutcracker’ in December 2011, and both productions were successfully distributed to around 500 digital cinema screens around the world by NCM Fathom Events, More2Screen and EuroArts Music.

 

In short, the ground was prepared for a live broadcast of ballet in 3D.  The proposal came from Ann McGuire and Lorna Dickinson – two British experts in live broadcasting, both 2D and 3D.  They have worked on projects both political (including the Gulf War), and entertainment-based (working with Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, JK Rowling etc), the majority of which have been global events.  These include the Party at the Palace in 2002, broadcast live from Buckingham Palace, celebrating the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.  They can also boast numerous talk-shows with international stars, from Queen Hussein and Vaclav Havel to Yehudi Menuhin and the team behind the film ‘Titanic’.  Listing their entire CVs would take more space than we have.

 

The choreographic side of things was also essential, and Ross MacGibbon was invited to direct – himself a former dancer who in his day performed on the Covent Garden stage and even with Rudolf Nureyev.  Today he is recognised within the industry as the leading and most experienced director of filmed dance performance: among other things he directed the internationally-screened 300th anniversary concert for St Petersburg, and in 2006 he filmed ‘Swan Lake’ with Uliana Lopatkina.

 

In January 2011 these three founded the company Glass Slipper Live Events, the name leaving no doubt that this was a project about ballet.

To bring their collaboration with the Mariinsky Theatre to reality, they went to James Cameron and Vince Pace’s company Cameron Pace (CPG) – the recognised world leaders in 3D technology.  Just recently you could go to the cinema and see the results of their collaboration with Cirque de Soleil in the film ‘Cirque de Soleil – Worlds Away’, directed by Andrew Adamson.

 

Specialists from CPG have already visited St Petersburg, and British participants in the project were here only a few days ago – executive producers Ann McGuire and Lorna Dickinson, director Ross MacGibbon, along with the Director of Photography, sound director, lighting specialists and others.  They were there to work out the final plan for camera positions, and solve various organisational and technical issues.

 

Ms McGuire and Ms Dickinson generously and willingly explain to me the origins of the project and the thinking and preparation behind it.  Sergei Beck, head of the Mariinsky’s audio-visual recording and broadcasting department, also joins the conversation and helps translate (when you have a specialist translator, you can be sure that not a word is misplaced).  All three speak fascinatingly and in great detail – the following is just a brief summary.

 

In February 2011 Ann McGuire visited the Mariinsky Theatre, where the audience largely consisted of “elderly women and no tourists”.  She saw “an absolutely wonderful performance, so typical of this theatre.  And I thought ‘What a pity, that people around the world are unable to see this miracle’”.  Ann spoke to Lorna – at this point they had both seen Wenders’ film ‘Pina’ and were convinced that dance ‘is a completely different experience in 3D – the spectator receives a much greater impression’.

 

And so began the idea of a 3D broadcast from the Mariinsky to cinema screens.  Ann and Lorna took the role of executive producers and began talking to Cameron Pace, who had spent 15 years developing 3D technology, investing millions of dollars.  They were “absolutely intrigued”, insofar as they “understood the aim – perfect dance in perfect 3D”.  Preparations began.

 

Last year the Mariinsky Ballet was on tour in California, where Cameron Pace filmed a few extracts from their performances.  What’s more, ‘many of the crew had never been to the ballet in their lives – they subsequently all bought tickets and went to the show’.  The filming was done in the studio on green screen, using the same techniques as ‘Avatar’.

 

In November 2012, members of the company visited St Petersburg in order to shoot scenes for a 7 minute 3D film, working with the Mariinsky and Sergei Astakhov’s film equipment company ‘AST’.  The film will run in cinemas around four or five weeks before the broadcast in order to spread the word among audiences.  This film (directed by Geoff Posner – who among other things headed the broadcast of London’s Olympic Opening Ceremony) tells of the birth of ballet as an art form – in St Petersburg, Russia no less, 275 years ago.  The entire project is coordinated around this date:  on 4th May 1738, Russia’s first professional ballet school, the Vaganova Academy, first opened its doors.

 

The plot of the short film is as follows: in the 18th century, a ballerina (played by Mariinsky soloist Anastasia Kolegova) is ascending the Jordan staircase, representing the third Winter Palace in the time of Anna of Russia, for it was in her reign that ballet was born.  The ballerina is hurrying to a dance class.  (Maestro Valery Gergiev personally received filming permission from Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum),

The class itself has already been filmed in the Mariinsky’s White Foyer with pupils from the Vaganova (thanks to the cooperation of the Russian Ballet Academy), dressed in 18th century costumes.  The accompanying music was recorded a few days earlier by maestro Gergiev and the Mariinsky orchestra in the Concert Hall – you can see that even the cameo roles in this project are performed to the highest standard.

And James Cameron, a notorious perfectionist, flew especially to St Petersburg in order to watch and ‘supervise’ this short film: his company only works on projects where quality is guaranteed on every level; otherwise, they will do no more than supply the equipment.

 

CPG’s equipment is not only the best but also the most advanced; in particular this means of the smallest possible size.  This is very important: for the 3D effect, the cameras must be as close as possible to the dancers.  Four are positioned directly in front of the stage, one in the Royal Box, another will be flown on a crane, and two more will be positioned elsewhere.  There are eight cameras in all.

 

3D film cameras have, as is well-known, not one but two lenses (just as we have two eyes) and are an impressive size.  CPG are continually working on minimising them (those that filmed Avatar were four times larger), but they are still a long way off the size of 2D cameras.

The theatre is faced with a number of technological and organisational issues (such as where to place the audience in the stalls), yet Ann and Lorna simply radiate confidence in the success that will come of working with such “strong” partners: it will be “perfect dance and perfect 3D filmmaking”.

 

The aim of the project is overwhelmingly simple, democratic and captivating: the Mariinsky Ballet, which has numerous admirers, should be able to be seen even by those who for various reasons would never be able to come to St Petersburg or see the company on tour.

The plan is to reach 2000 cinemas in 50 different countries (Met-Opera : Live usually broadcasts to 1700).  Nevertheless, there are many locations without 3D capability, and so there will also be a parallel broadcast in traditional 2D.  Since not all cinemas were able to prepare in time for the middle of February, the event was shifted back four months.

 

The date has now been announced: 6 June.  It will begin 21.30 St Petersburg time.  In Central and Western Europe the time will be 19.30; New York will have a morning showing.  In countries where audiences are sound asleep, cinemas will show later recordings of the performance.  Distribution in Russia is still being negotiated – talks are in progress with the three largest cinema chains – all of whom see the huge long-term potential of the project.  A particular difficulty is that the European satellites which will transmit the broadcast don’t extend their signal further than Moscow.  Either the signal will have to be re-broadcast, or different satellites will need to be used; this issue is still being resolved.

I ask how many people are involved in the project, and receive the satisfied reply, “Well, it all began with one person and one idea.  As we say, out of a small acorn can grow a mighty oak...”. Now there are around 30 specialists – the Glass Slipper Live Events team, an entire unit from CPG, and those working with the satellite company...in June there will be 70 foreigners working on the project, plus theatrical specialists (including employees of the Mariinsky’s own mobile television station), plus ‘AST’, plus transportation, catering etc.

 

And after all we mustn’t forget the artists.  In just the company for ‘Swan Lake’ – yes, it’s about time we named the actual production – there are more than 30 actresses, and of course there are the ‘little swans’, and the soloists, and the ‘courtiers’, and the main  roles...

Why this particular ballet?  Yes, it’s the world’s best known.  Yes, Hollywood made it even more famous with Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ (2010).  But most importantly:  Marius Petipa, one of the creators of the classic version of this magical tale, created it in the building of the Vaganova Academy on Zodchevo Rossi Street, which is today recognised as the humble birthplace of the great Russian ballet tradition...remember its 275th anniversary?

 

At this point Ann and Lorna take their leave, promising me the “best viewing position” for the broadcast but I speak with Sergei Beck for another hour about the Mariinsky Theatre’s technical equipment and the comparative principles of broadcasting ballet in 2D and 3D, including artistic concerns.  But that’s already another conversation...