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Ballet-friendly theaters

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Recently a post complained about the size and sight-lines of the Wang in Boston. Setting aside the problem of filling so many seats, large theaters obviously provide a very different experience for the viewer -- even the viewer relatively close to the vast stage -- than smaller venues. For example, I never really felt close to NYCB after it moved from City Center to the great barn of the State Theater, regardless of the ticket price. And gradually I reduced my ballet attendance and moved to other, more audience-friendly forms of performance arts. Down in south Florida, the Kravis and Broward Centers are 2000+, with smaller stages than the big, big houses, but if you want something more intimate you have to go to 300-500 seat houses, which may not make economic sense for the companies.

How does theater size -- or lay-out -- affect your experience of ballet? Are there theaters that work better for you, emotionally and aesthetically, than others? Or that don't work at all? And -- related question -- what kinds of adjustments have the dancers and choreographers you see on a regular basis had to make in order to achieve that emotional bond that is so important in attracting dance audiences?

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Wortham Theater's Brown stage is very good for dance. The seating is frontal, meaning the seats don't extend out to the sides of the auditorium too much. It's a medium sized theater with about 2000 seats, and sitting in the top section still feels fairly close to the stage since the seats were built more upward rather than backward. The only poor seats I've sat in are side orchestra. Most people complain about the balcony (top section) because the sight lines cut off the backdrop on stage, but I don't mind if I have binoculars and the dancers are always visible from there, and that's what's most important. Wortham's smaller stage, Cullen, is also good for dance but a lot smaller.

I rather like NYST. It's much more dance-appropriate than the Met.

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There are pluses and minuses, and they depend on the company, community, and ballets being performed. For example, in the SF Bay Area, the War Memorial Opera House is a pretty good fit for SF Ballet, from what I can see. It's large, but not so cavernous that the company has trouble filling a decent amount of seats, and not so tiny that it sells out every time. The main issue with larger opera houses--and this is a problem at the Met in NYC--is the sightlines, both in terms of things getting in the way and just too much distance from the stage if you're not square in the front of the orchestra. At the War Memorial Opera House, there are some, not many seats with an obstructed view. I've never had the pleasure of sitting in them, so I don't know how obstructed it is. What I do know is that in the Balcony and Balcony Circle (the highest balcony in the house), the top of the proscenium cuts off the upper half of the sets in story ballets, which is a bit of a problem in Swan Lake, where you can't see the vision of Odette in Act 3, and R&J, where the balcony gets cut off. :D On the bright side, the stage isn't cramped, but that could be because SFB is an official tenant of the Opera House and can design most of their productions to fit the stage.

The other venue that sees most of the Bay Area's ballet (and modern dance) performances is Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, namely touring companies (Bolshoi, Kirov, ABT, NYCB, Farrell, DTH, etc). I don't know off-hand how many people it can seat, but it looks about 1/2 to 3/4 the size of the Opera House, and the stage is somewhat smaller, but it's perfectly acceptable for smaller productions. The sightlines are much better, owing to the fact that the mezzanine levels aren't so high up and far back; you can get away without binoculars, which isn't always possible at the Opera House. However, larger productions can look a bit cramped; I noticed this in the Bolshoi Swan Lake, and was afraid the Prince would kick somebody. :yahoo: I may have heard somewhere--possibly here?--that touring companies often are limited in what they can bring to the Bay Area because of the small stage at Zellerbach, which is unfortunately the only venue suitable for larger ballet productions that is available for touring groups. There are other theatres which could easily host large companies, of course, but they're all "taken," either by the SF Opera (when SFB is on hiatus), or by tours of Broadway musicals. So when a major ballet company tours to the Bay Area, chances are they will be at Zellerbach. The only time this wasn't the case was when SFB did an exchange with POB and POB performed in the Opera House.

I wonder what dancers and choreographers look for in a theatre, and how it overlaps and diverges from what audiences look for.

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On a side note, I was just wondering...has anyone ever tried sitting front row at the MET? Do you feel like you're looking up and cant see some things, or is it just right?

*getting tickets soon for ABT's spring season*

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I rather like NYST.  It's much more dance-appropriate than the Met.

Old Fashioned,

I do too. First, it has about 1000 fewer seats than the Met (I may be a bit off on that, but there is a significant difference)

Then the tiers are arranged so that the seats, even at the very top, seem much closer to the stage.

From the top of the Met's Family Circle, the stage looks 3 miles away.

Richard

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On a side note, I was just wondering...has anyone ever tried sitting front row at the MET? Do you feel like you're looking up and cant see some things, or is it just right?

*getting tickets soon for ABT's spring season*

Accob,

I have and I dislike it. I don't want to be in the front row for ballet, opera, concerts, plays or films.

I just don't want to be that close, you see heavy makeup, and all kinds of other things that are distracting. And you miss a lot of the stage patterns.

For ballet, I'd MUCH rather view from a slight angle above the stage rather than looking up from the very front of the auditorium

I would say that the first or second tiers/balconies/rings give the best overall view

Richard

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How does theater size -- or lay-out -- affect your experience of ballet?

In my opinion the State Theater at Lincoln Center is close to ideal. In the orchestra the sight lines even from the side seats do not distort and even from the back rows you do not need binoculars. The rake of the seat’s floor is very good in seeing the expression in the feet of the dancers.

That the question is not simply contemporaneous, some historical perspectives:

Edwin Denby, Dance Writings, April 1944

“….the Center was not built for ballet.

The Metropolitant wasn’t built for ballet either. From the orchestra seats you have a hard time seeing the dancers’ feet downstage, and dance lovers know that standing room at the Met is really the best place to see from. But the Met stage itself is beautifully proportioned for dancing….The height of the proscenium, the absence of overhanging balconies in the house allow the lines of force in the dance movement to extend freely up and out into the air – and ballet, like orchestra music, needs a clear space to ‘reverberate’ in.”

“The Center has not these architectural advantages. The stage is not ample enough for dancing to spread out.” I hope that the newer members would dip into Edwin Denby’s writings. He was the best critic we ever had and his comments on dancers like Markova, Spessivtseva, Alonso, Toumanova, are priceless since he was one of the last to see them dance. His reports on the early Balanchine are unique and necessary for the choreographic legacy.

A stage influences both the choreographer as well as the dancers. When Balanchine moved from City Center to the new State Theater, his style changed. For the dancers of the Ballet Society, he used to the emphasis the minutiae of style, concentrating on clarity, suddenly they had to adapt to the new venue and a new perspective. Some felt unappreciated as he looked to the younger dancers for “more expansive movement able to fill the new stage.”

A large stage sometimes gives a unique perspective as in Duato’s Jardi Tancat. A semi circle of poles suggested the intimacy of a village in the enormity of the Wang stage standing for the Spanish plain. Thus your perspective was intimate even when the full stage was subsequently used.

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Los Angeles isn't a ballet city, - we don't have resident company and this fact explains alot. IMO, the problems here are priorities, facilities and sightlines. We don't have a suitable venue for world-class companies. The Shrine Auditorium isn't used as a venue anymore, and it was like sitting in a huge barn with no acoustics. The Los Angeles Opera and the L.A. Philharmonic (with its new Disney Concert Hall) take precedence in the city's artistic life. The Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, (the L.A. Opera's home), is adequate for its opera productions, but not ideal, for example, ABT. The OC (Orange County) Center for the Performing Arts is okay, sight lines are somewhat more reasonable, but also not ideal IMO. Also, the OC is a major commute depending on where you live in Southern California.

Other local stages like the Pantages and Ahmanson are better, but designed for musical productions and plays. The Pasadena Civic Auditorium is the same. The Hollywood Bowl (the Philharmonic's outdoor summer home) is also no good: Its in the flight path of planes coming in from the Pacific. Cerritos Center for Performing Arts' main stage is for pop music concerts. When the Perm Ballet danced "Cinderella" and "Romeo and Juliet" they were very cramped on that stage. When the Kirov brought "Bayadere" to the Kodak Theatre, (designed and built specifically for the Oscars), they were cramped as well. 50% of the outer wings were onstage. In Act 1, the temple scene looked like my neighbor's backyard, the palace looked like an ante-room, and the shades scene looked like it was being performed in an elementary school auditorium. So, if I'm really compelled to see a particular dancer or company, I'll break out the passport, by a plane ticket or simply enjoy the latest DVDs.

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I'm always pleased to see references to Ewin Denby, he's top-tier for me, but I would just like to remind readers that the Met he wrote about in 1944 is not the one we have today, where I agree that sitting upstairs is good for the over-all view, but toward the back of the orchestra seats is a compromise worth considering, to get a little closer. Consider sitting just across the aisle, so you can look down the aisle to the stage. (I saw some performances from upstairs in the old Met, and the main floor looked awfully flat and level, just the circumstances to give rise to complaints like Denby's.)

Yes, the New York State Theatre is a lot better, not least just because it's not so vast, but I would still prefer that the main-floor seats were raked up more. In the years when I attended regularly, I could never quite decide between the middle of the fourteenth row, say, downstairs, and the front row of the first "Ring" (balcony), and finally gave consideration to the size of the casts I most wanted to see. I don't quite agree that the place is not too wide, but this may reflect a personal sensitivity: I don't have to move far to the side to feel they're dancing for the others, and I want to feel they're dancing for me!

Smaller houses are better for ballet, and I think maybe 1000 to 1500 is about optimum; the three south Florida venues MCB dances in are too big, I think; even where the rows are well raked up, too many of them are just too far for those qualities theatre-goers sometimes call emanations to take place.

In Chicago, the Auditorium Theatre is magnificent for sight-lines and acoustics (if not for wing- and back-stage space), but it seats very nearly 4000! The rows are well raked, as they must be for good acoustics, but 30 rows back is still pretty far. (In spite of the liveness of the acoustics there, in my long experience of the place, the current management sees fit to amplify pit orchestras, including most regrettably the mighty Bolshoi's!) The Lyric Opera House, on the other hand, may have no good seats, by my criteria; the main floor is pretty flat, and I have often been partly blocked in there (I'm 5' 10" or so), and the front section of the first balcony, called the Dress Circle, is pretty far from the stage. Add to this a fairly level ceiling. and you have pretty dead acoustics, too.

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My short answer is that it's poor compensation for the great Schiller/Garrick Theatre or the excellent original Goodman which have been demolished with this city's characteristic profligacy, and that overall it seems cheap and meager in conception and finish - painted concrete, for example - as though built on a tight budget, which it may well have been. My main criteria are how you can see and hear, and the sight lines seem to be just adequate, mostly. I've been there only twice, and the sound was amplified both times, so I haven't gauged the acoustics, which I believe are adjustable, by the way.

My wordy, rambling answer, along with others, appeared here:

http://ballettalk.invisionzone.com/index.p...hl=Merce+Harris

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