A new arena for dance: Will 50,000 people flock to the O2 for Romeo and Juliet?

From tonight, the Royal Ballet will perform Romeo and Juliet at a huge rock arena in London. Wherefore? <b>Nicola Christie</b> speaks to Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and the Royal Opera House's Tony Hall about their desire to make classical dance accessible to all.
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The Independent Culture

Twelve thousand is a lot of seats to fill. It is almost six auditoriums' worth of the Royal Opera House, packed into one. And with four performances, that means nearly 50,000 people to bring to the ballet. It is arguably an insane destination to plant Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo, Romeo and Juliet respectively. "Of course, I'm nervous," admits Rojo, the Royal Ballet principal ballerina. "None of us has ever done anything like this before, but I'm really excited."

The decision to take the Royal Ballet to London's 02 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome, is a radical one. Ballet isn't everybody's thing. Unlike Beyoncé or even Les Misérables – which itself tried out an arena run at the O2 Arena, and successfully – ballet music and steps are not instantly hummable or memorable. They take time to know and love; they are not mainstream entertainment.

That's all about to change. Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, believes that ballet and opera can and should be for everyone. Raymond Gubbay, one of our best-loved, homegrown impresarios – who has strived to ensure that high art reaches everyone – agrees with him. "Sitting down to a live ballet or opera can't be replicated. It is live performance, watching what's going to happen next with thousands of other people around you. It's a spectacle, a one-off experience. It's thrilling."

There are more than 100 dancers and musicians, spied on by a mighty set of cameras, and projected on to a series of giant screens, involved in the O2 performances of Romeo and Juliet. It is a huge production, and, for the Royal Ballet, unprecedented in scale. "It's an experiment," offers Hall, who is in charge of notching up audiences for the finest opera/dance house in the country. "We want to reach people who wouldn't normally come. Perhaps because they think it is too far, or that it is too expensive, or maybe they just think the ballet isn't for them."

And it is for them? As in, anyone? "Yes, literally. Actually, maybe not literally, but for the vast majority of people, yes, I am certain that ballet – and opera – is for everyone. Give people the chance to see a ballet, understand the story, and watch the thrill of dancers like Tamara and Carlos performing this repertoire, they will get the excitement, too."

Amidst all the excitement, there's a basic question to be asked. Will people see it? The star attraction, the Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta, admits he is worried, too. "Of course, it's not an ideal setting, you lose the intimacy that Romeo and Juliet needs. For people sitting at the back, they will miss you, they have to use the screens. But, for all the things that work against us in that particular venue, there is the appreciation of the ballet for what it is – colourful, special... hopefully the audience will want to follow it more."

Rojo, the Spanish dream ballerina, says that it is going to be a juggling act, the need to project and yet retain intimacy; three of the standard 20m-wide O2 screens will be capturing their every move. "We'll have to judge it carefully – how to project, how to keep our performances intimate. For me, I feel it's important for everyone in the arena to feel like the show is personal to them. With the technology we have now, there is no excuse to get it wrong. I hope I can crack it."

The distance from the far end of the arena to the stage is 160 metres, the length of nearly two football pitches. One wonders what this first experience of ballet will be like when the delicate detail and nuances of this art form are taking place almost a bus journey away. Isn't that the point of going to the ballet? To get lost in the beauty and splendour of movement, to see – really see – the body doing miraculous things?

Gubbay says that this is missing the point. "It is not just about the detail, it is an overall experience as well. You're going to see really great performances and hear really great music that will involve and excite you. It is going to be an absolute spectacle."

The move to the O2 is a grand audition, if you like. The Royal Ballet is looking for an audience for 50 years' time, for 100 years' time; that's not going to happen if they stay at home in Covent Garden. They need to move out and sell their wares. Pitch for a new family. If they get the gig, they won't need to keep on schlepping to Greenwich, they can stay at home and entertain new fans on their own turf.

James Coster and Rosie Newler, O2 regulars, are excited and curious. "I've never seen a ballet, but I think I'll give it a go," muses James. "I've heard that Carlos Acosta is very good."

"I've been getting much more into dance with So You Think You Can Dance," says the 15-year-old Rosie Lewler. "I can get a ticket for about £10 – I may as well try it. It's not much more than going to the cinema."

A ticket to a Royal Ballet production of Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden is, on average, £50; at the O2 performances, there will be 8,000 tickets over the course of the four performances that will be on sale at £10, with the most expensive seat costing £60. An entire family can go for £40. "This is a fantastic statement about our desire to get out to as many people as we can," enthuses Hall. "We want to make people think that ballet is for them."

The ballet that they're using as their tool is Kenneth Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet, with music by Sergei Prokofiev. It's a dream or, as the billing from the Royal Ballet puts it, it's the world's greatest love story (presented by the world's greatest ballet company; no room for modesty when you have 48,000 tickets to sell).

"It's the best narrative ballet in history," Rojo offers. She also says it was an immediate choice of repertoire for the company, bumping off Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty instantly. "Who doesn't understand and know the story of Romeo and Juliet? There have been so many films, so many versions of the play, we've all studied it in school, it is the most accessible ballet that there is." It is also about humans as opposed to tutu-clad swans or dolls. And it contains one of the best female leads ever written.

"I've danced Juliet so many times, three different choreographers' interpretations, but it's Kenneth's that is the ultimate version," Rojo reflects. "He understands that she is the driving force of this relationship. She is quite clear-minded about what love means to her – what true love means to her – she is not going to settle for her mum's expectations, society's expectations – it has to be true to her. Kenneth was very good at portraying Juliet's inner strength and desire. She's so young but she's stronger than Romeo – she's the driving force."

As a ballet, Romeo and Juliet contains one of the greatest dramatic scores ever written. Most of the music has been subsequently snatched for adverts, so it will be familiar to all; it also contains choreography that is masterly in its storytelling and characterisation. "To tell a story in a ballet isn't easy," reflects Rojo, "it's not as simple as a step per word. To portray a human character, a full human character, in, maybe, one minute of a solo dance, maybe a four-minute pas de deux, maybe a 30-second entrance on to the stage – that's rare. That's what Kenneth does with Romeo and Juliet."

The ballet is going to be presented in its full, unedited glory at the O2; no arena "adaptation". "I don't think anyone would have the courage to mess with Kenneth's choreography! It's too good. No, audiences are getting the real Romeo and Juliet."

The risk of the venture is considerable, though neither Gubbay, Hall, or O2 – the three of whom are sharing the costs, with the majority of the risk carried by the Royal Ballet – will reveal the full sums. Hall says the Royal "is not going to get rich on it" but that he is "confident that we will break even. If we can combine making it work practically and financially with reaching a new audience, I will be happy." The target is to sell 40,000 of the nearly 50,000 tickets on sale, which, at the moment, are moving happily.

It is a move that, for the Royal Ballet, is not a surprise and has been reached steadily. With cinemas around the country, and world, now showing Royal Ballet and Opera productions alongside blockbuster fare from Fox and Warners, it has been hard to avoid performances at Covent Garden, even if they're miles away – in geography and in taste. A recent Royal Ballet production of Giselle was projected into 370 cinemas, notching up a UK cinema audience of approximately 20,000; Macbeth, which screened live on Tuesday night, grabbed a further 100 screens.

"With a cinematic release, you are genuinely a global brand. We can reach so many more people and so many people who, otherwise, wouldn't come," explains Hall.

Is it about making money or about ticking the right box in an Arts Council grant? A bit of both, says Hall. "People have a right to this. A quarter of our budget comes from the public purse – for every £3 we spend, £1 comes from the public. People are paying for us and it is even more important, then, that we reach as many people as we can."

There is also money to be made – and, according to Hall, it is being made. "Yes, we are doing this commercially. We hope to cover our costs and make a bit. And then you put that money back on to the main stage." Put it into the giant costs of new productions such as the recent ballet of Alice in Wonderland by Christopher Wheeldon, which was beamed into the living rooms of hundreds of thousands of UK households on a Saturday afternoon on BBC1.

Adapting opera, or dance, for a mass market began, in the UK, at least, as far back as 1895, in the form of Henry Wood proposing a season of very cheap concerts, daily, by world-class orchestras. These Promenade concerts, 120 years on, now Proms, are playing to packed houses, daily and nightly, for three summer months, for prices as little as £5.

Put on good entertainment at a good price and you will bring in a crowd, or, in the words of the original Prom impresario Robert Newman, "run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until... [there is] a public for classical and modern music." It is what Raymond Gubbay has been doing for the past 45 years; memorably setting Puccini's Madame Butterfly in the round – on a magical floating lake – at the Royal Albert Hall, effortlessly silencing cynics who feared the art would be dumbed down. "When I see the excitement in the audience's eyes, they are all there together watching, I know why I do it," explains Gubbay. "It's deeply moving, very exciting, a special experience."

Like the impresarios Lilian and Victor Hochhauser, who bring the Kirov and Bolshoi ballet companies over every year, Gubbay believes in the arts changing lives. "It's very important," he says, "to the future of our society that as many people get to see these things as is possible."

Rojo adds her own take on it. "Ballet can inspire you, it can liberate you from the worries in your life, make you free, transport you to a different world. When you sit and watch a ballet you have an opportunity to feel empathy for another's love or sorrow, go to another place."

In the current climate, perhaps we need it more than ever. Certainly, people want to get lost in dance, music and fantasy in a way that we haven't for a long time. TV series such as Strictly Come Dancing and So You Think You Can Dance are generating sensational viewing figures; movies such as Black Swan are pulling in crowds. "Dance is very much a part of the zeitgeist right now," offers Tony Hall. "Ballet and dance are absolutely of the moment."

With cinemas, and DVD labels, clamouring to get their hands on these productions, Hall would appear to be right. Maybe the reason that we haven't sat down, in these numbers, to watch a ballet, or opera, together before is that we simply couldn't. The technology that allowed 6,000 youngsters, just two weeks ago, to watch Manon for free on a giant screen in London's Trafalgar Square, wasn't there.

Now that it is, there is no knowing how far and wide it can let out entertainment that has, for the most part, been reserved for the "privileged". We are, potentially, on the cusp of a social revolution; Aida or Giselle gently sparring with blockbusters at the box office. Revolutionary because the cinemas – and arenas, such as O2 – are taking the risk, are saying to audiences that this so-called high art is just as fabulous, if not more so, than the pop acts that have traditionally been presented at arenas.

Rojo has just come off the stage of the Royal Albert Hall in the English National Ballet's production of Strictly Gershwin, a large dance and music spectacular full of fabulous costumes and ballroom, ballet, tap and jazz dancing. With 6,000 seats and a vastly bigger stage than Covent Garden, the run has been good preparation for the O2 performances. "Good for my stamina and good for my sense of travel and distance," she says. ENB's ticket sales at the Albert Hall will undoubtedly give Gubbay and Hall confidence. In 2008, when Strictly Gershwin premiered 87 per cent of tickets were sold, approximately 45,000 over 12 performances. Last year, Swan Lake in-the-round, at the Royal Albert Hall, achieved ticket sales of 92 per cent across its 12 shows.

The question, now, is how many of these first-time arena audiences will make the switch to see the art form in their "natural" homes; indeed, whether they even want to. Certainly, ENB has not yet found evidence that its Royal Albert Hall audience are booking to go to the Coliseum. They're "very different audiences", is the official line.

But even if the cross-fertilisation of audiences does not result from our ballet and opera jumping into new homes, does it really matter? After all, everyone has their own preferred way of experiencing something. While an arena version of a ballet might seem a far stretch for Covent Garden fans, the large-scale, spectacle version of a ballet might be precisely what appeals to the O2 bookers.

How to build on what could be about to kick off at the O2 this weekend will be a happy challenge for the incoming Royal Ballet Director, Kevin O'Hare, when he takes over from Dame Monica Mason next summer. Equipped with young choreographers he will, no doubt, be helped in the generation of repertoire that is young, sexy and appealing – new shows that, in their own right, demand a young and new crowd to seek out the Royal Opera House.

It is a bigger job, and one that is well underway (Alice, Live Fire Exercise, the Rufus Wainwright residency), but the safest way to ensure an audience for an art form grows is to invest in, and be brave in the commissioning of new repertoire – to put on shows that a young and enquiring crowd have to see, rather than take what you have and dress it up differently in a new home. It is the difference between an experiment and a strategy. And it is a strategy that the Royal Ballet has never been more set to deliver.