Ballet for the People at the O2

‘More a social than an artistic experiment’, was how one critic described the Royal Ballet’s recent performances of Romeo and Juliet at the O2 Arena.

It was an apt description.  It is difficult to imagine two venues for ballet more diverse in size and clientele.  The Royal Opera House, the home of the Royal Ballet, is a comparatively intimate theatre populated by a knowledgeable audience of around 2000 who tend to enjoy their glass of wine and light refreshments during the interval.

The O2 is a vast arena accommodating audiences of 12000 plus and is primarily a venue for pop concerts.  The staple fare comprises hot-dogs, pizzas and beer, often consumed while performances are in progress.

So huge is the O2 that for some of the audience the stage was a distant 160 metres away  –  almost the length of two football pitches.  To compensate, three large screens were used to provide close-ups at key moments.  The music, provided by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was amplified through the hall’s sound system.

The choice of ballet was important.  Romeo and Juliet is a gripping story.  MacMillan’s choreography ranges from the tender to the macho, and Prokoviev’s orchestral score is colourful and dramatic.  The result was a spectacular production.

But was the experiment a success?

In box office terms it certainly was.  The four performances attracted a combined audience in excess of 45000.  Artitstically, too, the ballet critics were generous in their comments, especially when writing about the principals, Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo

And the audience  –  how did they react?  Initially they behaved in the manner to which they were accustomed, that is,  there were some who wandered in as and when they felt inclined, often clutching a hot-dog in one hand and a drink in the other.  Significantly, as the ballet progressed they became increasingly wrapt in what was happening on the stage and screens and the end of the performance was greeted with a roar of approval  –  for the right reasons!

So what has been learned?

I see a strange parallel with the advent of package holidays in the 60’s.  A previously untravelled clientele flew to the Costas to enjoy a new cocktail of sun, sand and sangria.  Many were happy to return year after year to repeat the experience.  A small number took the trouble to learn something of the language to improve their understanding and their communication skills, and a few went on to explore other parts of Spain and Spanish culture.

Like the Costas package the O2 experience was a taster  –  a mere dip into the world of ballet.  What it most certainly did not do was to provide a basis for a definitive decision, such as ‘I like/don’t like ballet’.  Hopefully it demonstrated that ballet as an artform is not elitist (even though the behaviour of some ardent enthusiasts may be!).  Like any other language (and dance is a language  –  a vehicle for expression) a little time spent understanding a few conventions  –  the equivalent of the traveller’s phrasebook  –  will bring vast rewards.

At the same time, the artist Monet offered a word of caution and was critical of those who searched too deeply for ‘meaning’ in his paintings: ‘as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.’

Let us hope that the O2 audiences will have been released from any lingering misconceptions, prejudices and elitist inhibitions.

See also RomeO2:Never Mind the Hot Dogs

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