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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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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Anarchy on Sky Arts

Anarchy on Sky Arts

Anarchy in Manchester, a new series produced by Illuminations, starts tonight on Sky Arts 1 HD at 10.30pm. Producer LINDA ZUCK and editor TODD MACDONALD introduce the programmes.

LINDA: In six half-hour programmes, we bring you the very best of So It Goes, Granada Television’s music show presented by the late Tony Wilson of Factory Records and Hacienda fame. We have re-packaged live and uncut punk performance, and dragged it from the archives and into the 21st century – along with some of some of Tony’s most charmingly pretentious asides.

Tonight’s show includes The Buzzcocks, Penetration, The Jam and the very first appearance of the Sex Pistols on TV with ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Future episodes have equally terrific raw performance footage, mostly filmed in pubs and clubs around Manchester. Featured bands include The Clash, The Jam (that’s Paul Weller above), Elvis Costello, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Iggy Pop.

The Sky Arts trailer is here. Let us know what you think #skyartsanarchy.

Todd has assembled a dazzling .flickr gallery of screen-grabs here.
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‘The smell of sweat…’

‘The smell of sweat…’

I have been reading with great pleasure the excellent Library of America anthology The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner. Edited by Laurence Senelick, this features numerous essays, reviews and poems across the past two centuries – and I recommend it warmly. One of the topics that especially fascinates me at present – not least because of my work with RSC Live from Stratford-upon-Avon – is what the specific qualities are of the theatre experience, especially when compared to film and to television.

In a 1955 essay, ‘The American Theater’, penned for Holiday magazine and included in the anthology, Arthur Miller addressed the issue in the following way. I don’t entirely agree with him (and his gender-specific prose grates today) but he expresses his sense of this with elegance and precision and passion:

 As the lights go down and the curtain rises, our visitor [to a Broadway theatre] may feel a certain strange tension, an expectancy, and an intense curiosity that he never knew in a theater before. Instead of the enormity of the movie image before which he could sit back and relax, he is confronted by human beings in life-size, and since their voices do not roar out at him from a single point to which his ear may tune in once and relax, he must pay more attention, his eyes must rove over a thirty-foot expanse; he must, in other words, discover. And if there happens to be something real up there, something human, something true, our visitor may come away with a new feeling in his heart, a sense of having been part of something quite extraordinary and even beautiful. Unlike the movies, unlike television, he may feel he has been present at an occasion. For outside this theater, no one in the world heard or saw what he saw this night. I know that, for myself, there is nothing so immediate, so actual, as an excellent performance of an excellent play. I have never known the smell of sweat in a movie house. I have known it in the theater – and they are also air-conditioned. Nor have I known in a movie-house the kind of audience unity that occasionally is created in the theater, an air of oneness among strangers that is possible in only one other gathering place – a church.

Image: Arthur Miller with his wife Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh, London, July 1955.

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.

Ghosts of Richards past

Ghosts of Richards past

To Middleham Castle on Saturday evening for a unique ‘performed screening’ of a 1911 silent film version of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Sited in the glorious Yorkshire dales, the impressive castle, now in the care of English Heritage, is strongly associated with time spent there by the late medieval monarch. The film was Frank Benson’s production from his own staging, in which he stars as the wicked king, and which was shot on the stage of Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The occasion was a presentation by Silents Now, a group led by Professor Judith Buchanan and based at the University of York, which is dedicated to exploring new ways of bringing audiences to films made before the coming of sound. And the ‘performed’ element was the contribution of the incomparable John Sweeney at the piano and a group of actors who contributed the verse, together with vivid sound effects, in perfect synchronicity with the flickering images. Nestled inside the ruined, spotlit keep and huddled with my family against the cold, I found it rather magical and rather marvellous.
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Shakespeare the sailor man

Shakespeare the sailor man

Many of the world’s most prominent Shakespeare academics are meetings this week in Stratford-upon-Avon for the invite-only International Shakespeare Conference. A highlight of the first day was the screening of Shakespearian Spinach as part of the paper by Professor Peter Holland. This 1940 Paramount animation features Popeye and Olive Oyl as Romeo and Juliet – and it is rather special. Here it is as today’s treat…

Waiting for Webster

Waiting for Webster

Tomorrow, at the final preview before Wednesday’s press night, I get to see a production that I have been looking forward to for simply ages. Maria Aberg is directing John Webster’s The White Devil in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford. So that’s one of the very greatest of all plays by one of the very smartest directors around in perhaps the best auditorium in the world. Excited, moi?

If you need an introduction to the play, the Wikipedia entry is a decent place to start. But in terms of this production, see this interview with Maria Aberg:

There is also a very good WhatsOnStage.com interview with Maria. Her production for the RSC of King John in The Swan in 2012 (go here for Peter Kirwan’s review for the Bardathon) is one of the most exciting and challenging productions of Shakespeare I’ve seen in recent years – and I have every hope that her take on Webster is as thrilling. Certainly the great set of production photographs by Keith Pattison that the RSC has just posted online suggests that this will be the case.

The RSC and Dusthouse have made a striking trailer for the show which comes with its parental advisory warning: ‘This trailer contains scenes that some viewers may find disturbing’.

More later in the week…

Image: Laura Elphinstone as Flaminio in The White Devil. Photo by Keith Pattison, courtesy Royal Shakespeare Company.

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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