Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake and What 3D means for Dance on Camera:
Although 3D technology is hardly a new phenomenon, cyclically waxing and waning in popularity for over a century now, in recent years its application has greatly widened, used not only for the big box office action movies, novelty sci-fi experiences, and children’s animated films that drove its success in the 50s and again in the 80s, but in more unexpected pairings; documentary, independent, and art house films. When Wim Wenders decided 3D was the best way to capture the life and work of legendary choreographer Pina Bausch and her company Tanztheater Wuppertal in his groundbreaking Pina, it was a reminder of what the technology could do for the depiction of dance on camera. Some of 3D’s biggest milestones involved dance – one of the first test films for the technology in 1915 was entitled Oriental Dancers, and the positive public response to the 3D release of Kiss Me Kate in 1953 helped convince studios to keep the innovation alive – but Pina was a more thoughtful, less mainstream return to the idea that dance is one of the best ways of showcasing what 3D can do.
After all, at the most basic level dance consists of the motion of the human body through space, film depicts space through the controlled perspective of the camera, and 3D technology heightens the depth and detail of that space. While on the surface it seems that introducing the third dimension merely approximates a live performance in a non-live medium, the intersection between 3D space with the necessary strictures of film cinematography actually creates something entirely unique. There is the movement of the dancers, and there is the movement of the camera, both familiar, but it is the ‘dance’ between the two, the synchronicity or counterpoint of their rhythm, that creates an experience apart from a live show or even the filming of a live show.
Although Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake is a recording of a performance (Bourne acknowledged during a Q+A after an early gala screening of the work at Walter Reade theater last week that time constraints prevented him from re-conceiving of the piece for film entirely), it clearly exists in a post-Pina world, where more independent work can benefit from the populist technology. It is not the 1997 Nutcracker, classic and true to convention, or the 2011 release of Lord of the Dance, buoyed up by nostalgia for a 90s pop cultural phenomenon.
Bourne’s most iconic work, Swan Lake is unusual, even subversive in its take on a seminal ballet, with its homosexual overtones and total disregard for pinpointing time and place (a comically lackluster nightclub burlesque suggests the seedy Times Square of the 1940s, but the prince’s ditzy girlfriend’s cell phone ringing during a performance-within-the-performance is squarely contemporary). Film, as always, allows a novel proximity to the expertly performed nuance of this highly narrative show – the sneer of a cold mother’s lip, for example, or the gesture of an impatient hand – but the 3D element does more, not only better defining what is minute, but heightening what is grand. The depth of the stage is emphasized such that the impressively layered ensemble scenes, like an eventful fete at the palace, or impossibly light, leaping attack by a flock of swans, feel all the more vivid. Those who wonder if the use of 3D brings something gimmicky to a beloved piece need not fear; over ten years since it was first staged, Swan Lake still feels moving, witty, and above all, fresh, flattered rather than overshadowed by a new technology.
By Farihah Zaman