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 web editor of the New Statesman.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism