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From Russia with love and tinted glasses

A word or two is in order about the current "broadcast" (film) of the recent performance of Giselle by the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, an NCM Fathom "event" presented in 3D. Anyone who loves ballet and doesn't attend frequent performances at the Mariinsky may want to see this film. Nonetheless 3D is a bad idea, the photography is flatfooted, and the Mariinsky Ballet does come to US stages. This syndicated screen presentation in fact is coordinated with the Mariinsky Ballet's eight July 11-July 16, 2011 performances as part of the Lincoln Center Festival in New York City. Not everybody can be in New York though, hence the country-wide screenings.

The NCM Fathom presentations, as American moviegoers may know, are two-time, one-day, highly publicized screenings for which one must often buy tickets in advance. They have most often been Metropolitan Opera shows. A few plays have been featured. They are meant as live simulcasts. This one was broadcast live on April 15, 2011 in Russia and parts of Europe. It came to San Francisco and other US locations July 12, 2011, however. To expand the showings, Fathom is issuing canned versions later. As films none of these are meant to be brilliant productions by great filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman's striking screen version of Mozart's Magic Flute. Rather, they are simply presented as records of notable performances.

When this Giselle film was shown in England in April 2011, Judith Mackrell of the Guardian described the Mariinsky camerawork, credited to the British outfit Can Communicate, as "wonky" (shaky, uncertain), noting figures looking pasted in from another ballet, and sudden drastic changes of focus. There are also odd jump cuts. And the camera work is flatfooted, though that can be better than obtrusive cleverness. As Alastair Macauley, dance critic of the New York Times, wrote of this film, the effect of the 3D is that it "isolates characters from the area behind them so much that they look like cutouts, artificially superimposed. Then, in a basic tracking shot, the reverse happens: it’s the background scenery that looks artificially imposed (like the unconvincing views over the shoulders of people driving cars in old movies)." Macaulay complains that the camera often cuts off the dancers' feet or hands. He also notes a familiar problem in dance films, worse than ever here, blurring of the body when the dancers jump. So you have poor editing and camerawork, further degraded by the jarring effects of 3D imaging.

What about the company, and this performance? Mariinsky is a Russian cultural powerhouse that has survived many vicissitudes -- a school, a ballet, an opera, and an orchestra, the latter frequently conducted by Valeri Gergiev at Carnegie Hall. For two decades the dynamic Gergiev himself has been general director of Mariinsky, which was originally created in some form in the 1740's. Its name was changed to Kirov by the Soviets, then restored to Mariinsky in the early 1990's. The Kirov, AKA Mariinsky, is one of the two great Russian ballet companies, along with the Bolshoi, and they are repositories of some of the greatest ballet artistry in the world.

As for this ballet, a summary of it has been issued to us by the film distributors, though it's not terribly informative for those of us, like myself, who are ignorant of the familiar work:

"Giselle is the story of a simple village girl who falls deeply in love with a dashing prince disguised as a peasant. The idyllic pastoral scene is shattered by an act of betrayal and the ensuing heartbreak. In the ballet’s second act, Giselle haunts the stage with her host of vengeful spirits, but ultimately the strength of her love transcends even death and bestows forgiveness upon her repentant lover. The ballet stars Natalia Osipova [of the Bolshoi Ballet] as Giselle with Leonid Sarafanov as Count Albert." The rather conventional, but pretty music is by Adolphe Adam. The choreography goes back to that of the Russian Imperial Ballet and Marius Petipa, in the 1890's-1900's.

What about the other lead male and female dancers?

The Guardian's Mackrell, who seems to have drunk some 3D Kool-Aid, writes that "The hyperrealism of the 3D closeup can be amazing: taking us almost inside the scissor-sharp brilliance of Leonid Sarafonov's batterie and the exquisite, deadly swoop of Ekaterina Kondaurova's arabesque." Ah, Ekaterina Kondaruova: she must have been the other, taller dancer who floated across the stage with such uncanny grace. Indeed Sarafonov's "batterie" was (or were?) incredible. This is a move where a male dancer jumps in the air and his feet spin back and forth around each other and I've not seen any dancer do it more precisely, or longer, than this dazzling performer. Sarafonov must surely be one of the greatest male classical ballet dancers in the world today. He did extraordinary things. He is a little young and chilly as an actor, though. He may not be as expressive as Natalia Osipova.

Speaking of Osipova, Mackrell says "the film, at its height, captures the vivid emotion flooding her blunt little face and the many, many small miracles in her dancing." Her blunt little face.... Indeed, alas. I could not see the vivid emotion flooding it. Perhaps I was not close enough to the screen. Osipova may be a fine dancer, but she is small and plain. I am not sure of the name of the other lead male dancer (who disappears in the second half of Act II), whose appearance, with his bulky legs, did not please. For proper praise of Osipova, see the review by Alastair Macaulay, who does her full honors, though he says there are more expressive views of her Giselle on YouTube than in this film.

The ensemble dancing in the "white ballet" of that second half of Act II is lovely. Ekaterina Kondaurova and Leonid Sarafanov are superb and for fans of Giselle Natalia Osipova is doubtless a must-see too, even in this clumsy film.

As for the use of 3D, it was evidently a Mariinsky choice, endorsed by Valery Gergiev, who says the Mariinsky was the first to broadcast an opera live, and the company strives for "innovation." But I still cannot for the life of me guess why 3D is persistently seen now as an "innovation." The idea goes back, according to Anthony Lane in his New Yorker survey apropos of Avatar, to Bwana Devil and November 26, 1952. More sophisticated means have been devised to produce it, but the clumsy glasses, the dark tint, and the odd separation of figures into forward and backward spaces remains much the same as it was on my grandmother's double-photo viewer Stereopticon, made in the early 1900's. Yet this format has been energetically revived -- for serious films like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and now for the Mariinsky's Giselle. I cannot even see how 3D enhances sci-fi or comic strip blockbuster movies -- though the desire to tart them up with gimmicks is understandable, given the stiff compeition. It's seen as a selling point, obviously, a novelty, something trippy, something that appeals to the young. But for balletomanes? Doubtful.

3D adds a slight illusion of depth, a crude, jerky kind of illusion, such as our grandmother's viewer provided. But the glasses cause a darkening of the image that also makes it not only less colorful but less sharp and clear. (This was especially an issue in Giselle, since the Mariinsky production staged all of Act II in dim light to begin with.) The eye naturally creates a smooth three-dimensional illusion in watching ordinary films. 3D only underlines the fact that the image is not, in fact, three-dimensional, because it creates a cruder illusion than the eye and mind can with "2D."

Ballet, like theater, is meant to be performed and seen live, not digitally reproduced, whatever the "D." But ballet can produce an adrenalin rush, even canned. That wasn't obvious at first. The very conventional painted backdrop and the clumsy camerawork made Act I of the Mariinsky's 2020 Giselle disappointing. But things picked up in Act II, particularly in the second half, when the dancing becomes increasingly spectacular. Finally the rush came, and I walked out exhilarated, in spite of my longing to be anywhere but in a cineplex wearing 3D glasses. In any medium, even though a glass, darkly, classical ballet at the highest level is still to some degree a glorious experience.

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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