How not to televise 'Swan Lake'

On January 21st, the BBC transmitted a recording of Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake, performed by the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet (previously called the Kirov ballet). The original length of 2 hours 15 minutes was cut down to an hour and a half, losing many of the dances, and narration was placed over the dancing at various points. A letter to Radio Times complaining about this was answered with waffle about fitting into the BBC1 schedule and making the ballet acceptable to non-ballet-fans. Who says the BBC can't dumb down when it wants to? (Nobody, actually.)

Last Saturday they did broadcast the unexpurgated version on BBC4, and it was this version I watched yesterday evening. The production is on the whole a good one, though the character of the Jester (who does not appear in Western productions) is too prominent and the happy ending seems odd to Westerners. Danila Korsuntsen was fine as the Prince: Ulyana Lopatkina seemed a bit angular as Odette but was convincing as her evil double Odile. However there was a tendency for the famed Kirov/Mariinsky smoothness to tip over into lethargy, and some of the dancing lacked excitement (though oddly the Mazurka was taken far too fast and turned into a scramble).

More worrying was the television direction. In its previous (and infrequent) ballet transmissions the BBC has on the whole avoided the irritating over-direction I've seen from some other broadcasters. Not this time. The director, Ross MacGibbon, seemed to feel that he wasn't earning his salary if he held any shot for more than a few seconds. Most of the dances were interrupted by brief (sometimes less than a second) shots in medium close up, showing only the upper half of the dancers's bodies: this regularly happened at the junction between one musical (and danced) phrase and the rest. For the most part he didn't commit the all too common mistake of cutting on movement (it's a dictum of conventional film editing that you should cut on movement, but in ballet it's disastrous), but these cutaways and the overall frequent cutting between different camera angles were tiring and made the dancing difficult to follow.

Worse, he fell into the trap of making cutaways to dancers at the side of the stage who were (in character) watching or between actual dancing. It's usual for them to make some movements rather than stand as statues, but that's no reason to keep cutting to them. In the worst case, the big pas-de-deux between the Prince and Odile in Act 2 was persistently interrupted by close-up shots of the Prince's mother and Odile's evil mentor Von Rothbart watching from the side of the stage. This was unneccessary, pointless, and distracting. Throughout the ballet there were also a number of handheld wide-angle closeups from an on-stage camera (obviously recorded during rehearsals) which were just as distracting.

If this is going to be the shape of BBC ballet coverage in the future it's very worrying. The purpose of televised ballet is to cover the dancing with the minimum intrusion, nothing more. Dancers must always be shown full-length (apart from very occasional shots during mime), shots should be held for as long as necessary without cutaways: and no-one is interested in minor characters noodling at the side of the stage. More ballet, please: and less direction. To quote Hamlet, 'more matter with less art'.

Posted: Wed - April 11, 2007 at 08:54 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM