December 3, 2018

Ballet and modern dance are the fine arts that have benefited most from Blu-ray technology.  We've written a review with screenshots for all 137 (more or less) Blu-ray ballet or dance titles that meet our basic quality standards and earned a grade higher than "D." This gives us the best resource on the Internet for learning about ballet and dance Blu-rays and how we diagnose the dread disease of DVDitis.

To get you started, we list our 11 favorite Blu-rays of traditional ballet works. Then we name our 17 favorite contemporary dance titles. Of course, there are links to the full reviews. Finally, we have added a discussion of the standards we apply in judging ballet and dance videos.

Traditional Ballets

The top four are our super-favorites; then follow 7 titles in alphabetical order:

1. Swan Lake. Nureyev. Paris Opera Ballet. Agnès Letestu and José Martinez at Paris Opera Ballet. This was the first fine-arts title published in HD. Tie: Swan Lake. Nureyev. Vienna State Ballet. This has better production values but weaker direction than the older show from the Paris Opera Ballet. Check out both reviews to see which version would suit you better.

2. flare The Sleeping Beauty . Petipa. Bolshoi Ballet. The Russians spent about a billion dollars on renovations to the Bolshoi. This SB was the first production in the reopened house. It's royal.

3. Romeo and Juliet. McMillian. Royal Opera Ballet. The Royal Opera House has 2 recordings out now of this---get Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta. Tie: Romeo and Juliet. La Scala. MacMillan. This splendid title is fully competitive with the ROB.

4. Raymonda. Vikharev. La Scala. Surprise! This has the grand adagio of the pas classique hongrois, considered by many to be the greatest scene from all of Petipa. There is no competition for this disc, and anyone with a serious interest in ballet has to get it.

5 flare La Bayadère. Grigorovich. Bolshoi Ballet. The second grand new production at the Bolshoi to be released in Blu-ray.

6. Cinderella. Wheeldon. Dutch National Ballet. Features wife and husband team of Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding.

7. Don Quixote. Ratmansky. Dutch National Ballet. Again we have Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding. The Don and Sancho Panza are played by famous comic actors with no dance experience, and that would make this a good choice for children and neighbors.  Tie: For serious ballet fans, the Nureyev version from the Wiener Staatsoper is probably the best of the 4 Don Quixote titles we now have with fabulous corps dancing throughout and appealing stars also.

8. Giselle. Bart and Polyakov. Paris Opera Ballet. If you can only buy one Giselle, it has to be this one from the Paris Opera Ballet. But we like to show Act 1 from the Royal Opera House disc with Natalia Osipova and then switch for Act 2 to the Paris Opera Ballet. This can give guests a bit of jet-lag, but they soon get over it. The recent ROH version with Nuñez and Muntagirov is a good choice if you can only buy one disc.

9. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Balanchine. Pacific Northwest Ballet. Good example how a regional company can do a grand job.

10. New York City Ballet in Paris. Balanchine. New York City Ballet. Finally we get a fine disc of 4 Balanchine neoclassical works from the New York City Ballet, all beautifully filmed by Vincent Bataillon.

11. The Nutcracker. Tomasson. San Francisco Ballet. This is the best ballet for kids. Tie: The Nutcracker. Nureyev. Vienna State Ballet. This version is aimed at older children and adults. It stresses dancing more than glitz.

Modern Ballet and Dance

The top four are super-favorites; then follow 13 titles in alphabetical order:

1. The Little Mermaid. Neumeier. San Francisco Ballet. Proves that a ballet company with modest resources can compete with the titans. An astonishing performance by Yuan Yuan Tan gives this title a level of spirituality that is often present when you see a person dance live, but is hard to capture in a recording.

2. flare Orpheus and Eurydike. Bausch. Paris Opera Ballet. Old myth and music; surreal dance and theater. This has an opera singer teamed up with a dancer for each major role. Everything is mysterious and exquisite.

3. La dame aux camélias. Neumeier. Paris Opera Ballet. The la traviata soap-opera story again, this time to music of Chopin. Wonderful dancing by Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bulllion. Everything is so gorgeous and elegant---the only time in our lives we caught ourselves drooling over dresses.

4. Metamorphosis. Arthur Pita. Royal Opera Ballet. Need a dancer to portray a huge, dying cockroach? Has to be Ed Watson. Perfect example of how a small group of dancers and a solo musician can come up with something both charming and profound. Maybe has the only pas de deux in history with one partner unconscious.

5. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Wheeldon. Royal Opera Ballet. Fresh take on old book with charming performance by Lauren Cuthbertson.

6. Amelia. Édouard Lock film. Unique world of Lock logic captured in a famous film that you can now enjoy in your own home!

7. Bach Christmas Oratorio Ballet (Bach Weinachtsoratorium). Neumeier. Hamburg Ballet. Luminous, profound update of the 2,000-year-old Christmas story with modern dance taking us places that neither text nor music can reach.

8. The Ninth Symphony on Schiller's Ode to Joy . Béjart. Béjart Ballet Lausanne and the Tokyo Ballet. Massive undertaking with a full symphony, chorus, opera singers, two ballet companies, and recitations from Nietzsche! Sounds overly ambicious, but it works.

9. Bodas de sangre and Suite flamenco. Gades. Teatro Real in Madrid. Probably the best recording ever of serious flamenco works.

10. C(H)ŒURS ("Choirs/Hearts"). Patel. Les ballets C de la B + Teatro Real Chorus. Wild ballet and performance art production.

11. flare McGregor Triple Bill. Wayne McGregor. Royal Opera Ballet. Includes Chroma, a piece that terrified dancers all over the world. (Will my company try to do that?).

12. Petite Danseuse de Degas. Bart. Paris Opera Ballet. New ballet with a curious tie-ins to the arts of sculpture and painting. We wrote this review using the voice of Marie van Goethem, the real little girl whose pathetic life is depicted in the ballet. Going to Paris? Watch this title and then visit Marie at the Musée d'Orsay. See if you can hold back tears.

13. Siddharta. Preljocaj. Paris Opera Ballet. Beautiful, stately, modern rendition of the Prince Siddharta story.

14. The Sleeping Beauty. Duato. Staatsballett Berlin. This is still the traditional story but with in a streamlined and fresh modern style choreographed by Nacho Duato.

15. Tatiana. Neumeier. Hamburg Ballet. Eugene Onegin story told with an amazing performance by the female lead, Hélène Bouchet.

16. Tribute to Jerome Robbins. Robbins. Paris Opera Ballet. Four short works, 3 by Robbins, offer wonderful dancing full of variety (including a rare ballet comedy) by the Paris Opera Ballet. Excellent disc to show neighbors and relatives.

17. The Winter's Tale. Wheeldon. Royal Opera Ballet. Has a traditional story, but Joby Talbot's way-out music puts this in the modern ballet and dance catagory.

Postscripts:

For children, get the Tales of Beatrix Potter and La fille mal gardée, both by the Royal Ballet.

Many publishers have published box sets of ballet titles. Often these are blemished by putting losers in with the good stuff. Well, in 2017, we started getting some boxes with no bad apples: take a peek at The Paris Opera Ballet Box Set, The Art of David Hallberg, Favorites by Christopher Wheeldon, and Ballet for Children.

Standards for Judging Ballet/Dance Titles

The world of ballet/dance is highly fragmented. Smaller acts and even individual dancers can get big audiences via YouTube and the like. Only the most established groups can get published in Blu-ray video. And we have learned that unless a ballet/dance Blu-ray also has surround sound, it's probably a weak title. So we only cover dance titles with surround sound.

Because our ballet/dance universe is relatively small, we have been able (even with our limited, week-end-warrior resources) to review and write up all 137 qualifying titles. So our coverage of the "best-of-the-best" dance titles is pretty solid. By working off our reviews, you can learn a lot about the history of classical ballet even if you have never had the opportunity to see a proper professional ballet performance. And we have some super performances by quite a few smaller dance companies.

Judging the quality of dance performances is highly subjective especially for amateurs like us with no dance backgound. And most if not all of the dancers who have been lucky enough to be published in Blu-ray are tremendously well-qualified artists. So we focus our attention on the quality of the video that was made. In this regard, we may be avant-garde, i.e. providing information no one else has thought to discuss.

From our work on Blu-ray videos of symphony concerts, we learned to be wary of a disease we discoved that we call DVDitis. Standard-definition cameras were used to make DVDs. Because SD video resolution was so low, the practice developed of making DVDs with many close-up video clips that would look better than long-range views. To give the video viewer a better idea of the big picture, the videographer made many short clips that were edited together to give the viewer a kind of mental mosaic of the event being filmed.

When HD TV and Blu-ray discs came along with better video resolution, it was then for the first time possible to make pleasing long-distance shots of artistic events. So video shot for Blu-ray should have far fewer clips than a DVD and the clips should be mostly long-range with some close-ups included for variety and dramatic emphasis. A good DVD can't be a good HDVD (Blu-ray). And a good HDVD (Blu-ray) can't be a good DVD.

Alas, the transition to making Blu-rays with long-duration and long-range clips has not yet occurred generally. Old habits die hard. And business managers decided to continue making DVDs which would then be reworked as Blu-rays for an extra profit center. These reworked Blu-rays suffer from DVDitis. They are marginally better than the DVDs, but they are not as good as they should be.

To distinguish the good Blu-rays from warmed-over DVDs, we developed the Ballet/Dance Wonk Worksheet. Filling in the worksheet allows us to determine the "pace" of the video, i. e. how long the typical video clip lasts. And we can also figure how much of the film is devoted to long-range views that show the whole bodies of the dancers and how much of the film is consumed by DVD-like close-ups. We publish the worksheets so anyone can check them for accuracy. It's like being in grade-school again: "show your work!"

All the ballet/dance videos with a flare designation have a slow video pace (average seconds per video clip with the more seconds the better). Orpheus and Eurydike (Vince Bataillon) has a pace of 77 seconds per clip! The Bolshoi Sleeping Beauty (Vince Bataillon) has a pace of 22 seconds per clip. Other great Bataillon shoots are the Bolshoi Bayadère with a pace of 17.5 seconds, his New York City in Paris with a pace of 22 seconds, and his Bolshoi The Golden Age with a pace of 16 seconds. Further, Bataillon tends to shoot at least 80% of his clips showing the whole bodies of the dancers. So Bataillon appears to be in a class by himself as the best ballet videographer in history. The McGregor Triple Bill was shot by Margaret Williams and Jonathan Haswell with a pace ranging from 10 to 17 seconds per clip.

The other titles on this list without the flare designation tend to be blemished by DVDitis-like symptoms of too many short, close-up video shots. The recent Nacho Duato Sleeping Beauty is now on the list but without a flare because the pace was too fast at only 9.7 seconds per clip (even thought 89% of the shots showed full bodies). Mata Hari was graded down and not considered for the list as the pace was only 7.8 seconds, there were only 11% full stage shots, and only 59% of all clips showed full bodies. Frankenstein, Anastasia, and the 2016 Royal Ballet Nutcracker suffer a similar fate. L'Histoire de Manon doesn't appear on this list as it (1) has only decent statistics with a pace of 10 seconds and 64% full-body shots and (2) suffers from an odd disc authorship issue.

An exception to the thinking above would be a dance video deliberately shot in the impressionistic style of a movie with a naturalistic set and props, many near shots, close-ups, and rapid-fire clips. An example of this would be The Age of Anxiety video from the Bernstein Celebration title. There MacGibbon records something quite different from what the live audience saw. The pace was only 8 seconds per clip and only 45% of the shots showed whole dancers. But the result in the home theater is terrific. You get completely sucked into the movie. But the actors dance rather than talk!

A sad special case is our favorite now-active choreographer, John Neumeier. We love all his work, but none of his HDVDs get a flare. He uses TV director Thomas Grimm. All of their films, no matter how great in concept and execution, have the Achilles heel of weak video content. For example, the 132-minute Tatiana has an astonishing 1,436 video cuts for a pace of only 5.5 seconds per cut, and only 52% of the cuts are full-body views. Neumeier's more recent Nijinsky is even more extreme: it has 1600 video clips in 128 minutes for a pace of about 4.7 seconds per cut and less than 45% of the clips have full-body views. Watching Neumeier shouldn't have to be so much work!

We don't do Wonk Worksheets on every new dance/ballet title. For example, we know all the Romeo & Juliet ballet films are too fast-paced. We are so lucky to have them at all, so we give an A+ to the best. But they don't get a flare.