When ‘going to the ballet’ means sitting in the blue light of your own screen … Forced to close its doors for the second time this year, London’s Royal Opera House takes once again to the virtual stage after a first live public performance since March—and last, until further notice. 

Lockdown. That dreaded word. The arts industry has taken quite a hit from the global health crisis that first struck Europe last spring. Theaters all over the world have been forced to close their doors. But for many—though these particular circumstances are certainly unprecedented—it isn’t the first time that they are confronted with harsh constraints. Artists, choreographers, directors and crew have a knack for rising up from the ashes; they form an industry known for its grit and resilience.

With the 2019/2020 season forced to an abrupt halt, many smaller companies—for lack of sufficient funding—resorted to remotely filmed collaborations. The smartphone has perhaps been their greatest ally this year, and social media platforms are a testament to the success of these more intimate ‘performances’.  

The Royal Ballet is ‘one of the great ballet companies of the world’ and receives the better part of its funding from the Arts Council England, individual and corporate patrons, as well as donors. The company resides within the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. While embracing recent trends—showing phone-camera footage of dancers’ daily routines, at-home choreographies, etc.—the Royal Opera House also dug deep into its archives to launch a free performance initiative under the title, #OurHouseToYourHouse. Their virtual season kicked off with a performance of The Royal Ballet’s 2010 production of Peter and the Wolf on March 27th, just over a week following lockdown. This first performance was streamed online for free on the ROH Facebook and YouTube channels. It was quickly succeeded by streamings of the company’s collaboration with The Royal Opera, Acis and Galatea; and its 2013 staging of The Metamorphosis

Before the outbreak of the pandemic in the western hemisphere, The Royal Ballet had been leaping its way gracefully through a complete programme of both classical and contemporary works. In fact, the season was cut short just as the company was performing Swan Lake, one of the most iconic and technically demanding ballets of the late nineteenth century. Earlier in the year, they had performed three other full-length ballets: Romeo and Juliet, Coppélia, and The Sleeping Beauty; the season’s contemporary works included Flight Pattern, Medusa, Dances at a Gathering, and The Cellist (a new work by Cathy Marston, performed last February to great acclaim). The season was set to continue well into the summer; more than six full productions were cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Principals of The Royal Ballet in the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s first work for the Company back in February, 2020.

#OurHouseToYourHouse ‘Free Friday premieres’ take place at 7pm BST. Successful streaming in March and April, led the ROH to adopt a regular two-week rotation of ballet production streams. From May 15th to August 7th, select repertoire from The Royal Ballet was streamed by hundreds of thousands of viewers from all over the world. Productions streamed after the summer season have been made available on-demand for one night only on the ROH website, for a fee of £3. 

Free streaming – virtual summer program (year of original performance recording):
Anastasia May 15-29 (2016)
The Cellist May 29 – June 12 (2020)
La Fille Mal Gardée June 12-26 (2005)
Woolf Works June 26 – July 10 (2015)
Romeo and Juliet July 10-24 (2019)
The Sleeping Beauty July 24 – August 7 (2019)

While the virtual season certainly showcased the company’s diversity and world renowned talent, we might wonder as to the choice of certain works given the pandemic context. Three pieces in particular have a disturbing undertone that seems to reflect a persistent global malaise even after lockdown. Pictured below:

Driven to madness by memories of a life that was never her own, Anna Anderson lives out her last days in a psychiatric hospital. (Natalia Osipova as Anna in Anastasia, photo by Tristram Kenton).
A man wakes up to realize he has become a horrendous insect. (Edward Watson as Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, photo by Tristram Kenton).
Nostalgia, isolation, love, and suicide. These deeply personal themes are explored in Wayne McGregor’s ballet Woolf Works, based on the writings of 20th century author Virginia Woolf. (Alessandra Ferri and Edward Watson in rehearsal, photo credit ROH).

By the end of May, as the company began to reclaim their theater space and fall back into a productive rhythm, several new programs were put into motion. Below, dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Nicol Edmonds in rehearsal for Elite Syncopations; and later, in performance on October 9th (photography ROH©). 

In transition from lockdown to live performances, the Royal Ballet initiated the following summer programs:

‘Live from Covent Garden’:

A three-part performance streamed live from the Royal Opera House on June 13th, 20th, and 27th. Performances showcased both ballet and opera, and were available on the ROH website as part of #OurHouseToYourHouse. While the first Saturday was free to watch, a fee of £4.99 was required to access the following two dates. A ‘highlights programme’ was broadcast on BBC iPlayer from July 11th under the title ‘Royal Opera House: The Reopening’.

The Luna Cinema summer collaboration:

Beginning on July 26th, four productions from the Royal Opera House’s archives were shown outdoors at some of England’s most impressive drive-in cinema locations. These included The Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘The Royal Ballet: Back on Stage’:

On October 9th, dancers paired up on the stage in a series of iconic pas de deux; the three-hour long night ended with Elite Syncopations, an ensemble-piece created for the company in 1974. For the first time since March, the company was accompanied by the ROH orchestra and a select audience of 400 individuals, including health workers, was invited. For a month following the original performance, this uplifting event was available online for £16 (ending November 8th). 

‘The Royal Ballet: Live – Elite Syncopations’:

The company took once again to the stage on November 4th. This special performance included excerpts from several ballets and ended, as in October, with Elite Syncopations. It was also the first and last performance the company performed in front of a live audience (tickets were sold online to the general public).

The Company in rehearsal before their 2017 performance of Elite Syncopations

Following the English government’s decision to go back into lockdown, the Royal Opera House was obliged to close its doors following the unique November 4th event. They plan on pursuing the #OurHouseToYourHouse initiative online via the ROH website for a small participation fee. Crystal Pite’s Flight Patterns—performed live last February—kicked off this new season of streamed productions Friday, November 6. The contemporary work packs dancers on the stage in synchronous movement, questioning human migration and its effect on the individual. A statement that isn’t lost on those who, once again—and for an undetermined period of time—are unable to move anywhere.

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