With 'Giselle,' Ballet Goes 3D, but Should It?

Can the high arts benefit from the same technology used by Transformers 3?

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More than 160 years after it debuted in Paris, the classic ballet Giselle will break with tradition tomorrow. For one day only, the tale of Giselle and Albrecht as performed by Russia's legendary Mariinsky Theater, with star dancer Natalia Osipova, will be shown on movie screens across America—in 3D, a medium that has never before been used with ballet.

But does ballet belong in 3D? Or as Hannah Baumgarten, co-artistic director of Dance Now! Ensemble in Miami asked when she spoke with The Atlantic, “Will the simulation supersede the actual event?”

Though often associated with sci-fi summer-blockbusters, 3D has been applied to other “high-brow” productions—with mixed success. Documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams captivated audiences and critics as Werner Herzog explored the French cave of Chauvet, home to some of the earliest cave paintings ever discovered. The 3D effect helped portray the drawings in fantastic detail, creating a tangible journey into the underground. Carmen 3D, however, was met with some critics blasting the opera adaptation’s weak imagery and mediocre acoustics. “If the sound isn’t authentic, then an extra visual dimension tends to create an all-the-more-artificial virtual reality,” wrote Mark Sed in the Los Angeles Times.

So it’s no surprise that some hard-core aficionados and professional dancers have been hesitant to welcome the arrival of Giselle in 3D. By bringing the art to movie theaters, the concept of ballet as movement to be viewed on stage, in person, a seat away from the pointed feet, disappears. The art form that started in Renaissance courts centuries ago fundamentally changes to something more common and commercial: It is defined no longer as ballet, but as cinema. Can a screen truly capture the emotional tension and the slight details that define each ballet?

“We are constantly flattening out our environment,” Baumgarten says, pointing out some of the downsides to a “flatscreen environment.” She notes that for a film like Giselle in 3D, the audience will hardly ever see the floor, which any choreographer will say is essential for creating patterns and measuring space. Baumgarten also observed that a defining element for any performance is “the shared experience between performer and audience,” and that the experience is “diminished by replication.” Additionally, bringing ballet to screens in 3D may heighten the emphasis on thrill factor and fierce movements. “It’s a shame," she says, "[3D] taking us further away from appreciating the natural beauty [of ballet].”

The tradeoff is, of course, that silver-screen distribution lends arts like ballet widespread exposure and affordability. Seeing Giselle in 3D is both cheaper and more convenient than seeing it on the live stage. It should attract first-time ballet viewers—who hopefully become longtime ballet fans. And, as the Mariinsky Theatre’s artistic director Valery Gergiev pointed out in the release announcing the film, embracing 3D will help the high arts live on. “This will be a progressive move to ensure that the future of ballet and opera is never questioned,” he said.

Joe Dives, head of development at Can Communicate, the production company responsible for the 3D effect in Giselle, said that his firm was attracted to the project because they wanted “ to give people the opportunity to see high art” that would otherwise be costly. Dives recognized that there’s a perception that shooting in 3D will lead to higher box-office returns, which he admitted wasn’t true. And he said the idea isn’t to replace live theater. “[3D]’s never going to replace seeing something in the flesh,” he says. “[But] if technology can deliver people a heightened experience and sense of immediacy, people will be attracted to that.”

Giselle in 3D ultimately poses the question of whether art should be preserved as it has traditionally appeared for centuries or whether it should move to adapt to the commercial realities of the day. But if it is to adapt, Giselle in 3D may be a slow start: An early review from The Guardian’s Judith Mackrell, for example, lamented that that the 3D used was "so disconcertingly wonky it makes your eyes hurt." But, she wrote, there are moments where the potential is clear—where viewers get “glimpses of how extraordinary a 3D Giselle might be.”