Swan Lake live in 3D: a cheap seat at the Mariinsky Theatre

Watching Swan Lake through 3D glasses might feel strange at first, but the Mariinsky Theatre's live 3D broadcast from St Petersburg provides an affordable way to go to the ballet in Russia.

It’s very strange to sit in a silent auditorium and yet be surrounded by the pre-theatre rustlings and murmurings of an audience more than a thousand miles away. You move your head, looking for the source of the low muttering, the occasional bursts of laughter, the polite manoeuvring of bags and feet as people squeeze themselves into seats, without being able to find it. The fact that you’re wearing 3D glasses, and your vision is thus greyed and blurred, only compounds this sense of dislocation.

When the screen eventually illuminates, you crane forward, eager to reunite sound with sight. The camera pans slowly, showing you the crowded, opulent interior of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg. There’s just a hint of voyeurism in this gaze – the knowledge that you can see this phantom audience but they can’t see you is hard to put aside.

The reason for this lop-sided link up – the faux velour and popcorn smells of a screen in London’s West End with all the swags and brocade that remain of Imperial Russia – is ballet. 275 years after the now-ubiquitous Pepita-Ivanov revival of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake was premiered, the Russian theatre has brought in the 3D technology that so brought Avatar and Life of Pi such commercial success to beam a performance of the ballet live around the world. 

Evgeny Ivanchenko and Ekaterina Kondaurova in Swan Lake

The use of 3D in the cinema is yet to be universally accepted by critics and audiences alike – while a few films, like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, have been widely acclaimed for their use of it, the technology too often feels “bolted on” after the fact as an excuse to bump up ticket prices. At the same time, live 2D broadcasts, such as of operas from the Met in New York, or plays from the National Theatre in London, have increased greatly in popularity in the last couple of years, since they enable people to enjoy blockbuster, sold out productions for a fraction of the price of a seat in the theatre itself.

So can live 3D work for ballet? It’s certainly a tempting concept, since a reasonably-priced seat for a ballet at an opera house more often yields an exclusive view of the tops of the dancers’ heads than anything else. And as demonstrated here by the Mariinsky, it certainly seems like it might provide a workable alternative. Rather than well-muscled legs zooming out of the screen at my face as I had feared, the effect was subtle, enhancing the surreality and wildness of the forest where the Prince first catches a glimpse of his swan princess. The effect really comes into its own, however, in the big corps de ballet scenes, when Siegfried and Odette float among serried ranks of posed swans, their elegantly waving arms perfectly delineated through the magic spectacles.

The 3D is most effective in the big corps de ballet scenes

Russian ballet has been in the news for reasons other than its dancers’ athletic or creative feats of late – the acid attack on Sergei Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, earlier this year receiving international coverage. The feuding and funding rows the subsequent reporting revealed in Russia’s ballet community no doubt continue, and in the light of that it’s easy to see this programme of live global broadcasts as the obvious PR response – an attempt to put the focus back on classical ballet and its long history in Russia.

But at the same time, the broadcasts could provide an affordable introduction to an art form that was once the exclusive amusement of the aristocracy. In the Twentieth Century Russian ballet’s fortunes have been closely tied with the country’s politics; indeed, the very name of the theatre has chronicled these shifts. Originally named the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, it has now become the State Academic Mariinsky Theatre (also being en route the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet and the Leningrad State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet). In the theatre itself, it might be the case that the Tsar’s Grand Dukes have merely been replaced by Putin’s oligarchs and their associates, but by digitally opening its doors to the masses like this, the Mariinsky is sharing a piece of ballet’s history with everyone who can afford the price of a cinema ticket. And given that you can even see the dancers’ facial expressions and the details of the magnificent costumes and sets, you’ve arguably got the best seat in the house.

You will have to swap your tiara and furs for a pair of 3D specs, though.

Principal dancers Evgeny Ivanchenko and Ekaterina Kondaurova try out the 3D specs.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era