Using live performance cinema as a teaching tool
by Joseph Carman
Few experiences educate a dancer like seeing an inspiring program of live dance. When a budding ballerina witnesses a world-class ballerina dancing onstage, a dream crystallizes.
Second to that, seeing one of the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema productions, broadcast from Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre into movie theaters across the U.S., gives students a view of the stage action that reads larger than life. The screenings, which have been presented in North America since 2010, allow ballet students nationwide to experience what previously only a select audience would see through touring performances (which have become increasingly rare). Discovering Bolshoi stars such as Svetlana Zakharova as Odette in Swan Lake, David Hallberg as Prince Désiré in The Sleeping Beauty, or Olga Smirnova in the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s Jewels offers the priceless revelation of ballet blossoming at its apogee.
“Looking at dancers and roles that have come before us is the touchstone of these dancers’ training.” —Nathan Hites
Mariya Kudyakova, artistic director of Art Ballet Academy in Arlington, Texas, says that many of her students and their parents enjoy the broadcasts and always look forward to the next one.
“We have several very committed dancers, and watching the various ballets enhanced their commitment so much more,” says Kudyakova. “Seeing the skill level and artistry portrayed gave them something to aspire to and to incorporate into their training. After each show I could hear the girls talking about the various artists and could see a heightened level of focus in class.”
For the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education’s pre-professional and conservatory programs, instructor Nathan Hites developed an academic dance history curriculum, focusing on the history of ballet, American modern dance, and global contemporary choreography. Because he uses lots of film in the classroom, the Bolshoi screenings have fit perfectly with his courses, and he usually takes 10 to 20 students, ages 12 to 19, to the movie theater. “It’s a wonderful thing to see how connected they are to these ballets—some that are over 100 years old,” says Hites. “It gives them life and makes them feel relevant to what [the students are] studying in the classroom.”
Learning from professional performances
Before seeing the films, Hites or another student advisor talks with students about what to look for: the period and style of the ballet, the musical sensibility, or the quality of the dancing. Clare Fetto, director of the Festival School of Ballet in Buffalo, New York, takes students ages 7 to 80 (she includes her adult ballet classes) to the showings. (They’ve seen all the simulcasts, including Giselle, Coppélia, La Bayadère, and the recent contemporary evening that showcased ballets by Jerome Robbins and Alexei Ratmansky.) Before the shows, she informally introduces the ballets to the students in the studio, usually through a YouTube video clip.
But the discussions after the trip to the movie theater really ignite the students’ hearts and minds. The Buffalo students were interested in the differences between the Cecchetti technique they study and the Russian Vaganova style, particularly the port de bras and the positions of the body. In Atlanta, Hites emphasizes the Bolshoi dancers’ use of their backs. “I have them look at the facings and the épaulement—something extremely clear in the Russian dancers, particularly in the corps work—and how synchronized that is,” he says.
“I could hear the girls talking about the various artists and could see a heightened level of focus in class.” —Mariya Kudyakova
Additionally, each Bolshoi simulcast opens with hostess/translator Katya Novikova offering a sneak peek backstage. The audience is treated to tidbits of information about the ballet to come, while the camera catches pre-show glimpses of the dancers warming up in costume. “They can see the steps right before the performance and revisit them in the work,” says Hites of his students.
Martha Patricia Montes, an instructor for Chicago’s Ensemble Español, has organized and escorted up to 10 students from the ensemble’s youth company, ages 10 to 19, to the Bolshoi screenings. She briefs the students about the storylines prior to the performance, and after the students have absorbed what they’ve seen, she says, “We have detailed conversations that allow the students to think critically about the dance, music, costumes, and technique.” Montes urges the students to note how the storytelling is conveyed in ballets such as Don Quixote through the dancers’ quality of movement, mime, precise technique, and heightened musicality.
“I also remind them of the hours it takes to perform at that level of artistry,” she adds.
The Russian word bolshoi can be translated as “grand,” “great,” or “large” and certainly applies to both the Russian dancing, including gravity-snubbing jumps, and the huge Bolshoi Theatre stage.
“We talk about the size of the stage—how many marley panels there are and the fact that these people move with such an expansive, ample use of the body,” says Hites. “In both their traveling and their port de bras, there is such an appetite for space in the movement. The choreography reflects that—especially with the newer works.”
In several instances, the ballets shown in cinemas correspond to what Kudyakova is teaching her students at Art Ballet Academy.
“We’ve been happy they’ve lined up with our spring shows and what the girls have been rehearsing, like Giselle, Swan Lake, or The Sleeping Beauty,” says Jayne Drusch, whose 13-year-old daughter, Julia, studies at the school. “They watch the pros, who seem like superhuman people, and then they see them backstage as normal human beings talking and giving interviews in warm-up clothes. They feel like one day they can aspire to that if they work hard enough.”
Because these are live simulcasts of actual performances (although time differences mean that U.S. audiences don’t view the ballets in real time), on rare occasions you see the dancers making errors, such as slips or fudged turns. It drives home the risks of live performance, which adds to the excitement.
Naturally the students have favorite dancers. Ballerina Svetlana Zakharova has claimed idol status for Julia Drusch. “I just love watching her so much,” she says. “Her line, the way she’s careful and clean with the in-between steps. Her port de bras is really nice. And her feet!” And, of course, David Hallberg, who took the eponymous role in the simulcast of the recently reconstructed classical ballet Marco Spada, made international news as the first American principal dancer to join the Bolshoi—and leapt into more than a few young aspirants’ hearts. Principal male dancers Ruslan Skvortsov and Semyon Chudin have also impressed the students with their noble bearing and uber-exact technique.
The broadcasts provide inspiration and new material for the teachers as well. Kudyakova pushes her dancers to replicate the traditional classical choreography they have seen and only modifies it when she must. Watching brilliantly executed double cabrioles or lighter-than-soufflé bourrées in action helps instructors dissect the movement for teaching purposes. Hites briefs technique teachers—although some attend the showings as well—about connecting the classroom work with the virtuosity and artistry the students have admired and discussed.
For both teachers and students, seeing the Bolshoi’s contemporary works gives a perspective on history. The last ballet of the 2016–17 Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema broadcast was A Hero of Our Time, created by former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Yuri Possokhov, who had also set several of his ballets on Atlanta Ballet.
“It was great for them to see ballet both as a tool to look back at The Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadère, and to see where ballet is going in the future,” says Hites. “Looking at dancers and roles that have come before us is the touchstone of these dancers’ training, connected also to what’s coming next.”
How to attend
Many of the students, teachers, and parents organize carpools to travel to the showings. The films usually screen on Sundays, making it convenient for work and school schedules. “For a lot of families that might not have the opportunity to see ballet, it’s a way to expose them to that in a very easy manner,” says Jayne Drusch.
From October through June during the 2017–18 season, the Bolshoi will present broadcasts of these ballets: Le Corsaire, The Taming of the Shrew, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, The Lady of the Camellias, The Flames of Paris, Giselle, and Coppélia. More information is available at bolshoiballetincinema.com.
Some of the groups, such as the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, have also attended The Royal Ballet’s simulcasts (information at roh.org.uk/cinemas), although so far those are less accessible in the U.S. than the Bolshoi’s. “We’ve talked about the [Frederick] Ashton repertory and its focus on the upper body,” says Hites.
“Seeing these performances gives such life to [students’] training, because the more they see, the more they realize they are part of this wonderful art form,” says Hites. “They see a range of stylistic and artistic perspectives, like in the classic and romantic ballets, that are being presented. It adds actual, physical life to it.”
Former American Ballet Theatre dancer Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts for numerous publications. He received a BA in journalism from The New School in New York City and lives in Palm Springs, California.