Review: The Bolshoi Ballet’s La Esmeralda
Ballet is a form of high art, and not something one associates with a typical movie-goer (no offence). And yet, there is a film of a performance by the Bolshoi Corps de Ballet.
Made in Russia, the film takes the audience on a journey through dance and classical music, as a traditional ballet would. The ballet, “La Esmerelda” composed by Cesare Pungi, is a 19th Century adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame”, although there are differences to the plot (which usually occur when there is a transfer of the same story into different media outlets). The Bolshoi Dance Company do an excellent job bringing the entire performance to life. It was, as can be expected of ballet, a long and drawn out affair, the entire story of five sections divided into three parts. “La Esmerelda” is a video recorded version of a live performance of the ballet of the same name.
The film doesn’t begin with dancing, however. Whilst the majority of the film was of the performance itself, the opening, and the intermissions throughout, were filled with narration from a multi-lingual commentator, Kataria Novakita. As a narrator, she had an interesting approach of translating what she said into French as she went, so if you tuned out halfway through a sentence, you could come back and wonder what on earth happened. This indicates that the film was intended for audiences outside the English-speaking world, which was a nice touch.
The narrator also got to show off her mastery of languages when she interviewed the producers of the ballet, Marius Petipa the choreographer, and Vasily Medvedev. Since they only spoke Russian, she would conduct the interview questions in Russian, then translate back to the audience her questions (in French and English), and then translate the response (again, in French and English). Although watching this woman translate could have been a show of itself, the constant language changes did make it a little hard to follow at times, especially if you lost concentration for a second. However, the background information provided was most useful for an understanding of both the ballet, its history, and the dance company.
The ballet itself was very well done. The music was excellently performed, including a nice percussive start on glockenspiel and timpani, conducted by Pavel Klinichev. The orchestra was in a pit, so the audience did not get to see them very often, but they compensated for their lack of appearance by providing the stunning soundtrack to the dancers. Watching from a cinema, it was almost as if they transported you to the world of the dancers. The music covered up a majority of the non-story-relevant sounds the dancers made, such as the sliding of shoes or the movement of props. By being cut off from the sounds that are made by the dancers, the music created a small world of the stage, isolated by a bubble of music. It is possible that the sense of an isolated bubble was also enhanced by the ballet being a film, which isolated the viewer of the film from the sensations of a theatre.
The isolation “bubble” effect is the part of this film that may draw the largest criticism from ballet watchers, especially purists. Being a film, the peripherals of a theatre, such as the smells or smaller sounds such as the murmur of the audience, are lost. Whilst the cinema does have an audience, the atmosphere of the two venues are very different. A theatre is a much more open, often grander, setting, which is specifically designed to host large audiences and large performances, whilst cinemas, although also large, can often be lacking in the same atmosphere that a theatre has. The other primary annoyance with the film was that the camera, by focussing on the leads, often neglected to take into account the smaller dances in the background.
An obvious example of this is at the beginning of the show when Gringoire is about to be hanged. Esmeralda appears onstage and does an enthralling dance. Now, the dance is marvellous, and it showcases the skills of the dancer well. However, occasionally one could catch glimpses of events in the background, like poor Gringoire humorously attempting to plead for his life and looking generally miserable at the whole affair. Not having the whole stage visible took away from the enjoyment. That being said, the film did manage to, with the aid of the music as mentioned previously, take the viewer to the world of the performance. It felt similar to a silent film, as there was only the action (the dancing and acting skills of the performers) and the soundtrack (performed superbly by the musicians). Whilst purists will dislike that aspect, and believe that such performances should only be viewed in the theatre, the immersion into the world of the performer was truly spectacular.
In conclusion, the film was quite good, although long. The commentary, whilst drawing out the length of the film, provided interesting information and helped fill in time betweeen acts. Even with the impressive, albiet confusing, self translation of Katarina Novakita, it served the role of the pamphlet or guide that is purchased at the neggining of these types of performances. The performance itself was superb, with the dancers and musicians performing to a superhuman level. However, whilst the dancing was spectacular, sometimes it did drag a little bit, such as at Phoebus’ engagement party. The largest area of contention was the fact that the ballet was on film. Whilst purists will dislike the change of medium, this reviewer feels that the immersion for the viewer into the world being showcased far outweighs the benefits of a live performance.
The overall sensation after leaving the cinema was of an excellent performance, although one should have an appreciation of ballet and its length before