‘Lincoln Center at the Movies’ brings dance events to the big screen

Maria Kochetkova in Erik Tomasson's "Romeo and Juliet."

Maria Kochetkova starred in the San Francisco Ballet’s  “Romeo and Juliet,” which was shown in movie theaters across the country on Thursday.

At last, the cameras are rolling. With the big-screen debut of San Francisco Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” at movie theaters across the country on Thursday, the United States is finally catching up with Russia and those nations where “ballet in cinema” has been popular for years.

Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is now closing the ballet gap, and giving some of America’s finest dancers (not just those who perform at Lincoln Center) a chance to reach the millions of people who live outside a major metropolis. The new program, distributed by Fathom Events, is called “Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance;” and it will offer three more screenings this fall. Viewers can watch the sensational Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform on Oct. 22; catch the saucy rhythms of Ballet Hispanico on Nov. 12; and shed a sentimental tear when New York City Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 5 and 10. (For information and updates, visit fathomevents.com). At last, everyone within driving distance of a multiplex can see what all the fuss is about.

Democratizing concert dance won’t happen overnight, however, and despite the example of the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema and its peers, the American team has much to learn. It was probably a mistake, for instance, to assign this project to the producers of PBS’s “Live from Lincoln Center” series, who brought a small-screen mentality to capturing SF Ballet’s performance of “Romeo and Juliet,” on May 7, at the War Memorial Opera House.

Let’s compare hosts, for instance.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s Katerina Novikova offers a purring, multi-lingual welcome, even extending “freundlichen grüßen” to German viewers. Retired ballerina Darcey Bussell introduces the Royal Ballet broadcasts chattily, but with style; and typically at the Paris Opera classy former director Brigitte LeFèvre was in charge of everything, including the cinema tours backstage.

We, on the other hand, get daytime talk-show hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. Torn from their high chairs on “Live!” and propped before a generic backdrop (is it even real?), these two appear tongue-tied. When Ripa manages to say “Prokofiev” without gagging, you want to high-five her.

Unsophisticated hosts are not the greatest liability of this first-edition “Lincoln Center at the Movies,” however. That would be the editing, which mimics the antics of “So You Think You Can Dance” by zooming in and slicing the choreography to ribbons, particularly in crowd scenes. Maybe these crowd scenes aren’t the best part of Helgi Tomasson’s 1994 “Romeo and Juliet,” but apart from introducing Romeo and his friends in characteristic moments — Romeo, hand-kissing; Mercutio, swilling from a bottle; and Benvolio, forgotten against a pillar — the frantic editing of the ballet’s opening scene gives viewers no sense of any organized activity. We must wait for the camera to pull back to see Jens Jacob Worsaae’s Renaissance piazza, the dancing threaded between two arcades set widely apart, with a bridge above and a central staircase leading to a church with a high rose window. While Worsaae’s set appears intentionally cramped, the editors try to cut it to the size of a sitcom living room.

At the Capulets’ ball, these editors again become impatient, cutting away from Juliet’s solos or showing only the top half of her body. Allowing Maria Kochetkova, the evening’s Juliet, to beguile us with her steps would be unthinkable. Either dancing doesn’t interest these guys, or watching too much television has left them with the attention-span of 5-year-olds. Before they tackle another project like this one, they should gulp handfuls of Ritalin.

Still, the camera is our friend when it offers close-ups of Kochetkova acting. When she spies Romeo beneath her balcony, her whole body reacts with wonder, and we know such a thing has never happened to her before. Despite the crazy-cutting, we see enough of this ballerina’s dancing to grasp her airiness and lyricism — the silken gliding that is the opposite of montage. We can also admire the way her limbs acquire weight and sensuality as Juliet matures, and as her childish playfulness becomes fierce temperament. If only the cinematographer allowed us to see the way her determination grows, as the leaping dancer projects her energy into space.

The Romeo, Davit Karapetyan, is an ingénue who looks most at home bursting into an ebullient solo after he reads Juliet’s letter. Pascal Molat’s witty Mercutio naturally enrages Luke Ingham’s doltish yet conceited Tybalt. As Juliet’s Nurse, Anita Paciotti appears too wise to be enabling some hare-brained wedding scheme.

Tomasson reminds us, during the well-scripted intermission, of his background performing in Copenhagen’s Pantomime Theatre, and his staging includes many carefully planned details. The choreographer gives us more Shakespeare than usual— not just epigraphs for each scene, but the princely gesture that banishes Romeo from Verona, and the fatal mishap that makes Friar Lawrence’s messenger stumble at just the wrong moment. Returning to the pompous “Dance of the Knights” after Tybalt has confronted Romeo at the ball, the Capulet clan looks delightfully rattled. The staging of Mercutio’s death is especially skillful, as the audience can see Tybalt’s blade strike home while the characters onstage cannot. Later, in the family crypt, the sidelong glance that Lady Capulet gives Tybalt’s corpse helps reconcile her with her husband.

A major production like SF Ballet’s “Romeo and Juliet” must succeed or fail on its own terms; and rare is the dance that film-makers can improve. The producers of “Lincoln Center at the Movies” should keep this fact in mind as they press forward with this vital initiative.


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