The Duress of Watching DVDs Instead of Live Performances
March 25, 2010
Last week, while preparing to write my weekly column for the New York Times about San Francisco Ballet's production of John Neumeier's The Little Mermaid, I watched a DVD of a recent performance of the work which had been recorded at the Hamburg Ballet last November.
The Ballet's press office was kind to let me have access to the recording. I couldn't really have done my piece without seeing what the ballet was like, my deadline preceded the ballet's opening so I couldn't view an actual performance and Mr. Neumeier would not let me attend a rehearsal. So the DVD was the best available resource under the circumstances.
Attending a live performances is of course different to watching a DVD. But I think they can serve as a tool for making certain kinds of analytical/critical comments in a feature article or even a trend/opinion piece -- though absolutely not a full-scale review -- if the following criterion are met:
1. The critic mentions that he/she viewed a DVD in the article.
2. The critic ascertains from the artist / company how much has changed in the production since the recording was made.
3. The critic refrains from making comments about elements of the DVD (such as cast members' performances) that do not remain relatively stable from night to night.
4. The quality of the DVD is high.
I was amazed at how similar last night's performance of The Little Mermaid, which I saw at the War Memorial Opera House with Sarah Van Patten in the title role, was in comparison to the DVD. The quality of the dancing was of course different -- Van Patten is a softer, less angular mermaid than the ballerina whom I saw perform the role in the Hamburg DVD. Funnily enough, though, the comments I'd made in my article about the bleakness and darkness of the work turned out to be spot on. Actually, the ballet is probably one of the most depressing works of art I've ever seen on the stage. Ballets don't tend to give people nightmares, but I think this one is capable of doing so.
I don't mean to encourage people who write about the arts to make judgments about work based on secondary materials. All I'm saying is that as recording techniques improve, digital recordings can provide an excellent resource to journalists on deadline. You just have to be a bit careful about how you use them.