The Twittersphere never fails to surprise but it’s still hard to believe that last week #WorldBalletDay actually beat #HongKong and #Windows10 in the Twitter popularity stakes, on a day of barricades in the Chinese territory and Microsoft’s announcement of a new operating system.
Twitter is a solid barometer of a vast and assertively 'engaged' segment of society whose demand to be noticed can sometimes be quite serious (see #HongKong). At other times, it’s merely incredible, as it was last Wednesday when some 5,000,000 tweets were sent by viewers of an internet love-in by the Royal Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, Canadian, Australian and San Francisco ballet companies, who mustered with phenomenal geopolitical cooperation in a seamless 20-hour marathon of live streaming online of ballet dancers’ lives. Was World Ballet Day Live the largest reality show ever seen? I’d like to know what could compete.
Hey @nationalballet! I'm watching the livestream of company class from Nairobi, Kenya! #WorldBalletDay Amazing global initiative!
— Sabrina Rubli (@sabsrubli) October 1, 2014
As viewers in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe leapt to share their presence, the hashtag #WorldBalletDay trended, leavingthe US’s second Ebola case and the knife-man in the White House behind. (Trending is what the top 10 Twitter topics are doing.)
A total of 307,393 viewed either the live stream or the catch-up later, according to the Royal Opera House, who organized it. More startling, live viewers watched for an average of 28 minutes - this is a spectacular evidence of interest in the abstruse kind of fondus that don’t turn up in Celebrity Masterchef. Viewers watched in bed, on the bus, surreptitiously at work.
'Preeeetttyyy much not working today. Just so we're clear. #WorldBalletDay', said a fairly typical tweet. 'What a lovely butt', said another. But who is to say that beautiful butts don’t play just as important a part in attracting new fans as the coup by National Ballet of Canada in having our very own Sir Anthony Dowell coach their Manon casts, or the unprecedented access to the willowy Svetlana Zakharova’s session with legendary Soviet boss Yuri Grigorovich?
With four hours each, the companies provided similar mixtures of promotional material about their theatres, cities and current offerings, but it was the candour of the working day access that surely drew all those viewers. London and Moscow dancers competed in wacky fashion stakes. The shorts on a couple of Bolshoi men left nothing whatever to the imagination, while at the opposite end the Carnaby Street riotousness of Royal Ballet rehearsal clobber stood out, starring an eye-watering collection of striped dance pants on the Royal’s shrinking violet Steven McRae.
Even more of a double-take for the spectator was provided by glimpses of his dancer wife, the heavily pregnant Elizabeth Harrod, doing the usual six o’clock stretches and U-bends alongside him in class as if she were not carrying a nearly full-term baby (above, in black, next to husband McRae)
The initiative was the Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare’s, after 200,000 people watched its experimental all-day stream two years ago. The strategy is no longer just to fill the opera house in WC2 but to develop potential audiences for live cinema, DVDs and other broadcasts.
Bolshoi chief Vladimir Urin described it as a poetic venture, the relay prolonging the dance day across time zones to make a chain around the world. A rather more hardheaded attitude had to prevail at San Francisco Ballet who went to Kickstarter to raise the $30,000 cost of the stream. Considering that they snagged 70,000 highly engaged viewers, 43 cents a head has to look like a great advert bargain. We can expect quite a bit more of this kind of thing. In fact, some of us are dreading it. I’ve spent about 12 hours online. I’d rather spend three in the theatre, please.
Some top man shuffles to catch up with. Sergei Polunin, the brilliant wildcard who deserted the Royal Ballet three years ago for Russia, has announced he is leaving ballet altogether to go to Hollywood. Handsome hunk as he is, one can’t not point out that previous great Russian dancers who went to Hollywood - the stellar Mikhail Baryshnikov and the late Alexander Godunov, who drank himself to death - found themselves typecast as Russian defectors, Russian hoods, or arm-candy for Sarah Jessica Parker. And they didn’t arrive already stamped with tattoos and a flaky reputation.
English National Ballet’s ballerina-director Tamara Rojo has snaffled the Bolshoi’s whizkid Ivan Vasiliev for ENB’s London New Year season as a guest. Short, muscular, spectacularly athletic, Vasiliev was the Bolshoi’s fantastic young Spartacus when he quit, along with his then girlfriend Natalia Osipova (who is now at the Royal Ballet). While there is a tendency to go 'yeah yeah' at this publicity coup by ENB, it’s worth mentioning that Vasiliev, 24, is a poetic chap who recites Esenin by heart and had longed to break out of his physical typecasting into romantic roles. Only by leaving the Bolshoi did he perform Romeo and Giselle’s Albrecht, and ENB is, surprisingly, his debut with a major company in Swan Lake.
Rojo has generously cast him with the waif-like Alina Cojocaru for the first London Coliseum cast, rather than with herself. She will perform with her other highly impressive guest signing, the top Dane Alban Lendorf.
Two departures will break hearts among ENB followers. The much loved ballerina Elena Glurdjidze, 40, will sign off in January with Swan Lake. Her beauty and emotional sincerity has won her legions of fans over 12 years with ENB. The company’s classy leading man, Zdenek Konvalina, 35, left last month, after three years in London. He has been much plagued with a back problem, and his marriage two months ago to rising ENB ballerina Ksenia Ovsyanick signals a new era. He was previously married to another ENB ballerina Bridgett Zehr, who herself recently remarried. They all very amicably 'like' and 'share' their remarriage news on Facebook. This is beginning to sound like a Nigel Dempster column.
And finally - the BBC has launched a dance version of its Young Musician of the Year next year, inviting 16 to 20-year-olds to compete in an array of styles, ballet, hip hop, Asian and contemporary. BBC Young Dancer 2015 will offer a modest £3,000 to help with training, but the far more valuable prize of a vote of confidence from such world-class judges as the ubiquitous Rojo, Matthew Bourne, Akram Khan, Kenrick H2O Sandy and Wayne McGregor. As the premium here seems to be on discovering skilled and determined youngsters (X-Factor sobstorytellers need not apply) I say all cheers to the Beeb. The key question would be about a viewers’ vote, which guarantees better ratings but is precisely what favours one-minute sensations rather than the sort of talents likely to make durable live careers. I hope they’ll take the GBBO road, rather than the Strictly one.
Ismene Brown is The Spectator's dance critic