Five years from now, popular cinema may have shaken off its infatuation with 3D, but for the moment, the movers and shakers are in thrall to its peculiar approximation of the way the eye sees things for real.
The latest art form to dish out plastic specs at the door is ballet, and on Thursday night the Mariinsky Theatre's production of Swan Lake was streamed to some 900 cinemas worldwide and 150 in the UK. These were mostly towns that don't get to see ballet in any shape or form, let alone a grand thoroughbreed such as the St Petersburg company (formerly the Kirov) that can claim the 1895 Swan Lake as its own.
The technology behind ballet's first global outing in 3D was provided by Hollywood's Cameron Pace Group, producers of Titanic and Avatar. The "film stage director" was Ross MacGibbon, a former BBC head of dance. This was an international collaboration at every level. Yet the initial thrill of Thursday's live streaming derived from the simple sense of being in St Petersburg, in any dimension. Even while the screen was blank, from the screening room in Leicester Square you could hear the leader of the Mariinsky orchestra rehearsing the demanding bits.
Once live, though, the cameras missed a trick. They obligingly roamed the sweep of the famous gilded auditorium, but failed to probe the audience – always a point of interest. On curtain-up, though, they swooped into the pit to give a visceral experience of Valery Gergiev conducting the overture, the 3D giving you the heady impression of being embedded with the second fiddles.
The Mariinsky's staging of Swan Lake, to those unused to Russian productions, can look jarringly old-school with its pesky Jester, pantomime-villain Rothbart and absence of naturalism. Quickly, though, you grasp the point: the ranking of purity of style above drama, allowing the steps to speak for themselves. The glittering first-act trio prompted spontaneous applause in the cinema – some of it, no doubt, tinged with pride at a fine showing from the young British dancer Xander Parish.
Predictably, though, it was the lakeside scenes, with their hallucinogenic patterns created by the 32 swans, that most benefited from 3D, intensifying perspective and clarity, though not in a way you recognised as "real". Moments of high drama were less successful for the usual reasons of dance on screen, the edit failing to take in all the necessary detail at a glance.
For all the novelty of 3D, HD would have done as good a job. The real breakthrough is the massively increased access to performances of this calibre. I'd love to know how this one went down in Redditch and Rhyl.
Rare is the show that looks better the further you sit from it, but Derek Deane’s 360-degree Swan Lake, designed for English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall, aims its kaleidoscopic effects at those in the balcony. Those in the stalls get to see the stars up close, but still ... (from Wed to 23 June).
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