Movie Night: Popcorn, Soda and a Major American Dance Company

9-25-15 Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is one of four companies to participate in Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance. On October 22, audiences around the country can head to a movie theater to see a screening of the company performing Wayne MacGregor’s "Chroma," Ronald K. Brown’s "Grace," Robert Battle’s "Takademe" and founder Alvin Ailey’s "Revelations." Lincoln Center

The screen flashed with ads as people entered the theater and surveyed the room for available seats—some holding bags of popcorn, others clutching the absurdly giant fountain sodas you'd rarely see outside the building. In theater No. 10, just past the bright visual assault of the concessions stand and wedged between showings of Sicaro and The Perfect Guy, audience members had chosen to go to the ballet, albeit in an unorthodox setting.

The movie theater at New York City's Union Square was one of more than 600 across the country to present San Francisco Ballet's Romeo and Juliet on the big screen Thursday as part of the new series Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance. Audiences will also have a chance to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater on October 22, Ballet Hispanico on November 12 and New York City Ballet on December 5 and 10. Each screening includes extra features where an intermission might otherwise go, like interviews with dancers, choreographers and costume designers.

The lineup "gives audiences a great cross-section of what dance is and what it can be," says San Francisco Ballet's artistic director, Helgi Tomasson, whose version of Romeo and Juliet opened the four-part series. Screening performances at movie theaters in cities and towns large and small all over the U.S. makes "dance available to people that might not have the access to those theaters we normally perform in," he adds.

The West Coast company was a fitting first in the series. Founded in 1933 as the San Francisco Opera Ballet, it was the country's first professional ballet company and is now its oldest. The full-length ballet based on Shakespeare's classic tragedy offered a familiar entry point and universal themes that dance novices could relate to while discovering a new storytelling medium in movement. "It's a beautiful love story between two young people," Tomasson says. "I think all of us can kind of identify with that."

After a brief introduction by the hosts, LIVE With Kelly and Michael stars Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, the room went dark and silent, save for the signs marked "Exit," the small lights lining the center aisle, and the occasional child's whisper and crunch of popcorn. The first frame placed Thursday's audience, sitting a few stories above 13th Street, with the audience inside a dimming War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, the orchestra visible in the pit with the heavy golden yellow curtain beyond it.

The orchestra members on screen stood as the conductor entered to a round of applause, initiating newcomers into this ritual that precedes a ballet. In this way and others, the team responsible for filming and editing each performance in the series tried to capture the experience as authentically as possible to try to make viewers feel as though they were there, all the way through to the curtain calls.

Translating dance from live performances in three dimensions to a recording in two comes with its challenges, both in theory and in practice. Those sitting in a live performance can look around, choosing where to settle their gazes at any given moment, explains Lincoln Center President Jed Bernstein. The filmmakers worked with multiple cameras and angles to try to create the right combination of scope and detail.

Film can provide certain advantages, highlighting details barely visible to those in orchestra seats, much less high up in the balconies. At Thursday's screening, for example, viewers were privy to the look on the protagonists' faces as they first lay eyes on each other, and the way Juliet placed her hand in Romeo's. Without a traditional program, scenes, settings and instructive quotes from Shakespeare's text were incorporated into the film. At the same time, formations were sometimes lost without a wide angle at the right time, and some of the exaggerated gestures, expressions and sword fights were clearly designed for faraway viewers.

"There is nothing like being in the theater," Robert Battle, artistic director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater since 2011, told Newsweek over the phone while on tour in Johannesburg. "One of the exciting things about an Ailey performance is this journey that the audience and performers go through together," he adds, with the former often reacting vocally. It's impossible to reproduce on film the visceral experience of a live performance—with the immediacy of bodies moving and breathing in the same room. Still, though a screening is "a different kind of experience," Battle says, it's "a valid experience."

For the Ailey company, the Great American Dance series is part of a larger set of goals that include leveraging technology and social media to engage audiences before and after performances and "finding other ways to find new audiences," Battle says. "It's wonderful that we have these programs on television that show a version of what contemporary dance is," but it's also important for audiences to have a chance to see dance more in depth, "not just sound bites and short bursts of energy," he adds. "There's a lot more to an entire work or evening."

The Ailey screening next month features four short works that highlight some of the company's breadth: Wayne MacGregor's Chroma, Ronald K. Brown's Grace, Battle's Takademe and founder Alvin Ailey's Revelations.

This last piece was choreographed in 1960—two years after the company was founded and in the midst of the civil rights movement—and reflects African-American history through gospels, spirituals and blues from "I've Been Scorned" to "Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham." It has become a staple of the repertory, repeated in countless Ailey performances in cities around the globe. "No matter where we are all over the world," Battle says, whether it's Russia, France or New York, "Revelations gets to people."

November will bring New York–based Ballet Hispanico to the screen with Gustavo Ramírez Sansano's full-length Carmen.maquia—which Artistic Director Eduardo Vilaro calls "a retelling of Carmen from a Spanish choreographer's point of view," with black-and-white, Picasso-inspired costumes—and a shorter work by Pedro Ruiz titled Club Havana, which evokes a scene in Ruiz and Vilaro's birth country.

"I have the opportunity to question everything that people think is Latino and refresh," says Vilaro, who stepped into the role of artistic director in 2009 and sees dance as a way to go beyond cultural stereotypes and share different perspectives. "There are many different ways of being Latino and that reflection comes across in what we do."

Lincoln Center's Bernstein says that in planning the series, it was important to choose companies that reflected some geographic and ethnic diversity, "if we're going to try to begin to represent American dance."

The final program will bring an American holiday dance tradition to the screen: As a chill sneaks into the air and Christmas carols and the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" play in every cafe and store, audiences all over the country will have a chance to see New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.

For many, including dancers and now-avid ballet-goers, The Nutcracker was the first production they ever saw, whether it was Balanchine's 1954 version that's still performed annually or one put on by a local dance studio. Perhaps now, with Lincoln Center's series, an evening of dance at the movies will become another vehicle like The Nutcracker, helping new generations fall in love with the art form.