Ms Dale’s dance

Ms Dale’s dance

To Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse for a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet’s Manon, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. Very splendid it was too, with Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli as the principals, and with screen director Ross MacGibbon providing a master-class in how to translate a fiendishly complex three-act ballet to the cinema. This post is intended to highlight the work of one of MacGibbon’s distinguished predecessors as a screen interpreter of dance, Margaret Dale, but let me note here that I am also fascinated by MacMillan. Jann Parry’s richly interesting 2009 biography Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan vividly portrays a conflicted man and a brilliant artist. And my interest in the relay was also piqued by seeing Marianela and Federico rehearse a pas de deux during the recent World Ballet Day online. The Royal Opera House have made this clip available on their terrific YouTube channel, and I embed it here simply because it is technically astounding and achingly beautiful.


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Sound and vision

Sound and vision

Collective self-portraits from the BBC are always compelling. And that’s exactly what the new video for BBC Music is, even as it features an all-star cast singing the 1966 Beach Boys hit ‘God Only Knows’. There’s already some good analysis online of the three-minute wonder, including a piece by Alexis Petridis for the Guardian. For the same news service, Michael Hann has the background, and there’s more from the BBC here. What particularly interests me is the defiantly retro feel of it all – alongside the remarkable CGI – plus the use of Alexandra Palace and the inclusion of vintage broadcasting kit. Here’s the object of our attention.


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Me and my MOOC, part 1

Me and my MOOC, part 1

I have come to the end of the first week of my MOOC. Having taken an assessment test and scored 34 from a possible 36 points (and with one of those I dropped being highly questionable), I’m feeling sufficiently pleased to share my experiences. Indeed I think I might chronicle my progress here on occasions across the next nine weeks. For those of you just arrived from Mars, a MOOC is a massive open online course, a relatively new kind of distance learning in which you particpate with lots and lots of other people. My MOOC has been put together by Futurelearn, a private company owned by The Open University, in partnership with The University of Warwick and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. The subject is ‘Shakespeare and his world’ and the tutor is the estimable Professor Jonathan Bate, Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, and author of one of the very best books on the Bard, The Genius of Shakespeare. Oh, and it’s completely free – you can sign up here.
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Ballet for breakfast, lunch… and more

Ballet for breakfast, lunch… and more

Today is World Ballet Day, a remarkable online collaboration of ballet companies around the world. Since 3am this morning the Royal Ballet’s free Youtube channel has been relaying rehearsal footage, interviews and more from The Australian Ballet and now we’re in Moscow with the Bolshoi (above). The virtual baton is handed to Covent Garden at 11 this morning. I would love to spend all day watching but real life means that I can only drop in and out occasionally, as you’ll see below….

7.20am: We’re in one of the rehearsal rooms of the Bolshoi, and artistic director Sergey Flin is offering a whispered commentary – but in Russian. Although now this is being interpreted and contextualised in voice-over. The images and sound are excellent, and my domestic broadband is only “hanging” very occasionally. There’s immediately an impressive sense of being invited in on a process which is all the more immediate and interesting because it’s not being structured and mediated by the expectations of television.

7.35am: Alongside the video stream there is a lively chat channel with a mix of informed commentary from watchers along with queries and gossip.

7.45am: Some of the dancers are offering brief interview comments between their exercises. The Royal Opera house Youtube page says that around 770 people are watching, although I’m not clear if this is the number viewing through this page (and others are accessing it in other ways) or if this is the total number internationally. At least it will provide a benchmark to see how the figures rise and fall through the day.

8.30am: A rehearsal with just two star dancers now, and some very elegant camerawork which allows us both to see the ballet master and, reflected in a huge mirror behind him, the dancers. Now an interview with principal dancer Svetlana Zhakarova (in Russian again), who we have just watched rehearsing – and she is engagingly out of breath. On then to principal dancer Denis Rodkin.

8.35am: On to a ‘bauprobe’, which I learn is a kind of showing of the full-scale set on the stage. So we get to see what the main house looks like from the stage – and we have (basic) sub-titles here – although at times they obscure vital parts of the image. Bit of an artistic disagreement about whether or not they can have water on the stage. Around 840 watching now.

8.50am: An onstage rehearsal, and the dancers aren’t ready – the choreographer Grigarovich is not happy, and is shouting at the stage. Maybe they prepped this to add a bit of drama, but I don’t think so. It feels very spontaneous – and not quite controlled. The stage rehearsal begins, with orchestra, of A Legend of Love. At times the camera cuts away to the poker-faced choreographer.

8.55am: This is really impressive – remarkable access, a big orchestra, exceptional shots of stage, house, pit. But I *have* to do some other things. Back later, and certainly to catch some of ROH after 11am.

12.35pm Back now with ROH and a rehearsal class. Immaculate sound and pictures – and more than 2,300 watching now. The dancers break and are being interviewed – thoughtful, engaging – I just wish I could spend all day watching.

12.47pm: Oh! Rehearsal run-through of a pas-de-deux from MacMillan’s Manon. Main camera on a small crane so we are above the two (astounding) dancers. Very beautiful.

12.50pm: Somehow it’s made all the more thrilling by being just a reharsal room piano and hearing the comments of the répétiteur watching. Comments too from Director, Royal Ballet Kevin O’Hare. The 2,545 viewers – not to mention me – really are getting a treat. I don’t think anything else I’ve seen – in documentaries or wherever – has got me this close to the rehearsal process of a ballet.

13.08pm Lots of fan love in the chat channel, which is adding its own level of fun. The two dancers, Nela and Federico, are being interviewed now. Federico signs off with a plug for the cinema broadcast of Manon on 16 October. I’m off to book my tickets now.

13.13pm Wayne McGregor now talking about his new collaboration on a piece about Virginia Woolf. “Who was Virginia Woolf?” asks our host. Not sure if the interested audience online really needs that. Followed by terrific montage of extracts from Wayne’s work: Chroma and Infra.

13.21 Composer Jody Talbot in a video package talking us through the composition of the score for Alice. Choreographer Chris Wheeldon in interview too, as well as designer Bob Crowley. Plus dancers Edward Watson and Sarah Lamb. Very nice, elegant film.

13.27 Bit of a sound snafu there as we go into Cassandra rehearsal. Still don’t think we’ve quite got the choreographer on a good mic. But I have to drag myself away and do some other writing. Overall, I am most impressed. Bravo, Royal Ballet!

9.35pm Back for a final session, and the day has moved on to San Francisco Ballet. The local production team has a Steadicam (or equivalent) to film this rehearsal. The standard of camerawork has been really high for everything that I’ve watched. Just over 2,400 viewers at the moment.

9.54pm The rehearsal is for a ballet called Raku, and by seeing the sequence several times you really do get a sense of development and indeed improvement. Interesting interview now with principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan who has been working with the company for 20 years!

Back to the future

Back to the future

Picturegoing is a splendid online resource compiled and curated by the estimable Luke McKernan, who also runs another richly interesting blog under his own name and in his spare time is the British Library’s Lead Curator, News and Moving Image. ‘An ongoing survey,’ is how Picturehouse describes itself, ‘reproducing eyewitness testimony of viewing pictures, from the seventeenth century to the present day.’ So here you will find Alfred Hitchcock recalling a virtual railway journey around 1910, the novelist Dorothy Richardson at an early talkie, and The Drifters ‘Kissin’ in the Back Row’ in a song written by  Tony Macaulay and Roger Greenaway. Luke reproduces the diary entry, recollection, song or whatever and adds a minimal but always revealing annotation. The earliest entry is from The Diary of Samuel Pepys with its account of a magic lantern show, and now one of the most recent is my own note first published on this blog of seeing The Metropolitan Opera Live in HD for the first time.

I am delighted that Luke requested permission to include this brief account from 26 February 2007, but as is always the case I was slightly nervous at re-reading something I wrote some years back. In fact, I was pleased to see that the prose is serviceable and that the historical context I sketched seems correct. Moreover, my sense of the significance of the occasion -’On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes’ - has been borne out by the success of The Met’s project, by NT Live and by the RSC’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon, which I now produce. (Next up is The Two Gentlemen of Verona on Wednesday 3 September – we ran the first camera rehearsal yesterday, and it is a wonderfully engaging and enjoyable show.)

From the start the brief for Picturegoing has taken in accounts of pre-cinema entertainments along with the movies after 1895, and now Luke hopes to extend the range to feature other media related to the cinema. In particular, he want to include further responses to this hybrid form that combines theatre and cinema and that, as he correctly notes, currently goes by a host of names including ‘streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema’. I look forward to Picturegoing offering me further virtual trips to the cinema in its myriad of manifestations.

Standing up for the selfie

Standing up for the selfie

Only rarely does writing about the arts really rile me. But today I read two pieces on the same topic that I regard as nostalgic, ignorant and elitist twaddle. The topic is the relaxation of the ban on photography for personal use at the National Gallery. The twaddle comes from Sarah Crompton, arts editor of the Telegraph, and from Michael Savage who blogs as Grumpy Art Historian (and who also has other issues with the gallery). In their respective articles Why you shouldn’t take photos in galleries and Trivialising the National Gallery, both express the view that permitting people to take photographs of great paintings that they own (if, that is, they are UK citizens) is a Bad Thing. I want instead to suggest that what is Bad about all of this is the exclusive and patronising attitudes both writers display towards the rest of us.
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Live from Salzburg

Live from Salzburg

To Cinema 1 at the Barbican for a live stream of The Forbidden Zone from the Salzburg Festival. Written by Duncan Macmillan and directed by Katie Mitchell, this new work premiered last Wednesday, plays Salzburg for another week and then goes to the Schaubuhne in Berlin. (A download of the programme in English is available here.) For one night only, and to one screen only, this innovative relay came to the Barbican as a co-commission with 14-18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions. Surprising and fascinating it most certainly was, as well as emotionally engaging.

As background, this video from 59 Productions includes rehearsal footage and an interview with Katie Mitchell:


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Stage to screen, the story continues

Stage to screen, the story continues

Discussions about adapting stage plays for the screen, whether broadcast live or recorded ‘as live’, have moved on apace over the past couple of months. There have also been a number of further cinema broadcasts, including a successful presentation by NT Live of David Hare’s Skylight, of which Encore screenings are continuing. Below are some recent readings about this question.

Let’s stop pretending that theatre can’t be captured on screen: this Michael Billington Guardian piece (18 June 2014) is something of a game-changer:

I went this week to a preview of Digital Theatre‘s screen version of Richard Eyre’s Almeida production of Ibsen’s Ghosts: I can only say that it offered an experience comparable to that I had in the theatre… while I remain an evangelist for live theatre, I think it’s time we stopped pretending that it offers an unreproducible event. A theatre performance can now be disseminated worldwide with astonishing fidelity.

• Sir Alan Ayckbourn voices fears over theatre screenings: the playwright offers a note of scepticism; from BBC online, 11 June 2014.

NESTA research finds that National Theatre Live has no negative impact on regional theatre-going: outline from The Audience Agency on the research undertaken with NESTA; 25 June 2014.

• Research finds that National Theatre Live has no negative impact on regional theatre-going: this is NESTA’s press release; 24 June 2014…

NESTA Working Paper 14/04: … and this is a download of the report in full.

How live cinema screenings can help boost live arts audiences: Arts Council Chair Peter Bazalgette adds his gloss to the research; from the Independent, 30 July 2014.

New work needs to be done before cinema broadcasts bring new audiences to opera: the focus is different, but this English Touring Opera research is also a valuable contribution to the debates; this is their 27 May 2014 blog piece…

English Touring Opera – Opera in cinemas research: … and this is a download of the paper in full.

The bitter taste of live screening: Elizabeth Freestone raises some important questions about live cinema broadcasts; from Arts Professional, 5 June 2014.

Coney’s no island – could streamed theatre let audiences call the shots?: Andrew Haydon for the Guardian on Coney’s interactive theatre experiment Better than Life; 1 July 2014.

Of Mice and Men to be National Theatre’s first live Broadway screening: meanwhile, NT Live is expanding its geographical reach to take in a New York show; this is the BBC’s 25 July news report. Screening dates for the ‘as live’ recording have still to be announced.

The next RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon cinema broadcast is Simon Godwin’s sparkling and totally delightful production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona on 3 September; details here.

Back to the tavern

Back to the tavern

If it’s Wednesday, it must be the live broadcast day of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Live from Stratford-upon-Avon broadcast of Henry IV Part II. We’re back at the Boar’s Head tavern, which is where Falstaff, Hal and the company acted out the banishment of the fat knight in Part I (below). Prepare to have your hearts broken tonight…

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

Cinema reviews for Henry IV

I am in Stratford-upon-Avon for today’s first camera rehearsal for the RSC’s live cinema presentation of Henry IV Part II on 18 June. One of the things that frustrates me about these broadcasts is that they rarely get reviewed or discussed as examples of live cinema. Part I on 14 May, however, attracted at least three substantial responses – from the Birmingham Post, from the blog But madnorthnorthwest and from academic Dr Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

Richard Edmonds’ 5-star review for the Birmingham Post:

 [I]n this skilful filming of the play not a word was missed, articulation was nigh perfect, the ends of lines were not dropped and so we heard our Shakespeare clearly which is surely the point of the exercise. The other great thing which a seat in the stalls cannot give us, is the intimate close-up. In the film of the play such as this, you can see the pores on an actor’s skin, almost feel his emotional suffering as the camera closes in on his eyes, and you can see the work of the costume department in detail.

 • The blog Butmadnorthnorthwest:

After the successful broadcast of Richard II last year, the RSC is now continuing with Henry IV (part 2 follows in June). Started off with a charming and informative interview of Gregory Doran (NTL, you might want to take notes of how these are done. Kudos to Suzy Klein.) who admitted having unsucessfully looked for his Falstaff until Ian McKellen called his attention to the fact he was actually living with him.

Peter Kirwan at The Bardathon:

This was the first of the ‘Live From Stratford-upon-Avon’ events that I’ve attended, the live screenings from Stratford modelled on the NT Live series that will, hopefully, by 2020 see the complete works of Shakespeare broadcast internationally from the RSC’s main stage. If the RSC wishes to remain competitive in a new market then it’s a necessary step, and it was a pleasure to see John Wyver’s team doing an extraordinary job with the filming. Despite the obvious awkwardness of filming a production performed on a thrust stage, cameras captured the fine detail that characterises Doran’s work, from the apparently suspended crown which dominated the stage at the production’s opening to the detail of Falstaff’s reaction to his dismissal by Hal.

I would be delighted to learn of any other detailed reviews, whether positive or negative.

PS. for the rationale for my new approach to the blog, go here.