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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear