As I take my seat, I can hear the buzz of the audience and the familiar sound of the orchestra tuning up. I glance at the programme that I’ve just been handed, and find a quick synopsis of the ballet I’ve come to see – Kenneth MacMillan’s Anastasia – and a list of the Royal Ballet dancers who will be performing each part. There’s always an anticipatory thrill waiting for the curtain to rise, and tonight is no exception: the view from my seat is fantastic, and I’ve been excited about experiencing Anastasia for a long time. So far, so normal. But then the countdown stops, the screen fades to black and the lights dim in the cinema. The live cinema relay has begun.
I’m sitting in a large cinema in Glasgow’s Cineworld; far, far away from the decadent Royal Opera House in the heart of London. Anastasia is only the first of numerous live screenings from the ROH over the next few months and is, according to presenters Darcey Bussell and Gethin Jones, currently being beamed straight to 913 cinemas in 25 countries. A quick scan through Cineworld’s upcoming film screenings reveals that, along with the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera, several other leading cultural institutions across the world participate in this initiative: National Theatre, Bolshoi Ballet and the Metropolitan Opera being only a few.
Anastasia is my first time at such a live screening, and I’m not sure what to expect. As the live cinema relay is hosted by presenters, the audience is immediately whirled into a series of interviews, introductory chats and behind-the-scenes glimpses that provide the uninformed (like me) with lots of helpful information about the ballet’s history and production. I learn about Anastasia’s original inception, the facts behind the ballet and the challenges involved in dancing the titular role, and by the time that the curtain eventually rises and I’m armed with my fascinating new knowledge, I honestly can’t wait for the ballet to begin.
It certainly doesn’t disappoint. The costumes are exquisite, the second act is utterly enthralling (Marianela Nunez in particular is incredible) and the third act is maybe the most startling sequence of ballet I’ve ever seen. But can it really compete with the visceral experience of seeing a ballet in the flesh? Well, yes and no.
Anyone who’s ever seen a recorded piece of theatre can understand its clear limitations: you can only watch what the camera wants you to watch. The emotion etched on the face of the protagonist. A shot of the ensemble weaving around each other. An intent focus on one particular movement. This is a factor that’s especially pertinent to ballet because – let’s not lie here – most of the time all anyone cares about is the dancers’ feet. Sometimes you end up mesmerised by one specific dancer and find your eyes following him or her around the stage. Sometimes you want to hone in on one astonishingly beautiful feature of the set. And, on the occasions when the camera disagrees with you, it can be infuriating to find your attention so suddenly diverted.
But really, when it comes down to it, there’s no denying that a live cinema relay offers amazing value for money. Yes, the intervals, although padded with absorbing detail, can be a little interminable. But the ticket costs a mere £14 – a staggeringly cheap price when you consider that seats with comparable views often stretch to £70 or beyond in the actual theatre. Gallery views with cheap seat prices: what’s not to love? For someone like me with an intense fear of heights, peering down from a miniscule balcony whilst trying not to have a panic attack is simply not an option. (Believe me, I’ve tried) This accessibility is also beneficial in more immediate ways: for a moderate price, you get to see world-class ballet, opera and theatre streamed directly to your local cinema, without the bother, hassle and hefty price tag of jetting to London or New York. And doesn’t everyone deserve to see the world’s best dancers, actors and singers, whatever their location?
Live cinema relays can’t replicate the magic of being in a theatre and watching a flawless production unfold. Nothing can quite capture that electric atmosphere and tangible enthusiasm in the air. But they’re an undoubtedly an excellent alternative: accessible, international and still just as riveting, there’s even something inspiring about the way in which live cinema relays bring together a community of theatre fans at the same time in vastly different locations across the globe, all to watch one particular production. And, just so you know, it’s still unbelievably awkward when a phone goes off in the middle of a performance even if you’re hundreds of miles away.