How can an acclaimed ballet company use digital innovation to bring a complex stage production to more people than could ever see it on tour? ENB demonstrate how thinking big and being brave can pay dividends.
What’s it about?
English National Ballet has been touring the UK for 70 years with the aim of bringing world-class ballet to the widest possible audience. Now with Akram Khan’s Giselle, it has used digital platforms to share the filmed performance and reach more people than ever before.
The Space has supported ENB in the performance capture and distribution of their production of Akram Khan's Giselle. ENB’s distribution strategy was ambitious and clearing the rights with cast and creatives for all the platforms on which they wanted to share the work wasn’t inexpensive. However, with showings now in cinemas, on DVD, TV and with online to follow, the work has reached an international audience. But what were the origins of the project?
“We had previously recorded one of our productions, Le Corsaire,” says Director of Marketing and Communications Heather Clark Charrington, “But I think the idea of going into cinema had then seemed too difficult and expensive. Now, though, the possibilities have become a little more tangible. You don’t always have to live-stream to cinemas, for example.”
Clark Charrington says that since Tamara Rojo joined as Artistic Director in 2012, the company’s focus has been to both celebrate the great classical ballets as well as evolve the art form by creating more new work. That desire to both create new shows and bring them to new audiences combined to make Clark Charrington and Head of Digital Daniel Alicandro want to film Giselle.
“The situation with complexity and cost hasn’t really changed since Le Corsaire,” says Daniel Alicandro, “I just think that we really believed in the project and wanted to see it happen so we tried to navigate all of the issues.”
There was the issue of which show to film but Clark Charrington and Alicandro believe the choice was obvious. “The nature of ballet companies is that we all have some of the same things we perform in our repertoire,” says Clark Charrington. “Almost every company will have a Nutcracker, a Swan Lake. We also know that it’s the more popular titles that are successful in cinemas but we thought that if we’re going through the challenges and go to this expense, it seemed silly to put something on that people may not even know is us. Giselle was commissioned by and created for English National Ballet – it was unique to us, so this was the piece that made the most sense.”
She continues: “This version of Giselle which we created with choreographer Akram Khan is a reimagining of one of the most famous and iconic ballets there is. Dan and I wanted to film it the moment we saw the first bit of rehearsals.”
The problem is that while English National Ballet is a hugely respected arts organisation, it’s a lot smaller than you imagine. “Our ambition is massive and I think we punch well above our weight,” says Clark Charrington, “but the truth is that we’re a touring company. We’re very lean. Our digital output has grown but it’s all happening within a very small team.”
Solving production challenges
ENB’s decision to capture Giselle on film was made very early on in the show’s production, but regardless of how important the filming was to become, the initial focus had to be on making the show. Its creative team were keen for it to be filmed but they wanted the stage show to be right first. “It was the first time Akram had done a full-length ballet so this was a big creative undertaking for him and also quite personal,” explains Clark Charrington. “The title character was being developed by our Artistic Director and I think they were both concerned about filming it in its very first run because they thought it might change or evolve after the first performances. They wanted to capture the final, final version.”
Once the show was proving to be enough of a success that they were sure it would return, the digital team was able to start working with The Space about how to capture it in time for the second tour.
“The Space helped us a lot in terms of resource and knowledge,” says Alicandro. “One of the things about the project is that we didn’t go to a separate production company. English National Ballet are the producers of this film and it was The Space that encouraged us to do that rather than have the extra expense of an outside production company or of having to give away some of the rights to them.”
ENB is clearly very familiar with how to stage ballet and Alicandro is used to running digital projects yet Giselle proved demanding. “There were times when it felt insurmountable,” he says. “There was a period where it felt like once a week there would be something going wrong and I’d pick up the phone to The Space.”
Clark Charrington says that The Space’s relaxed can-do attitude was a huge help. “Whenever we said we didn’t know how something was going to happen, they’d be ‘oh, we’ll find a way through it’.”
One problem was to do with scheduling. As a national touring company ENB wanted to film outside London and originally when Giselle was slated to return, it was going to be for just five performances in the capital. However, the show’s success was such that the schedule changed and the company was able to add, and therefore film, a performance in Liverpool.
Further scheduling had to be taken into consideration because of the way that ballet uses multiple casts. They had to make sure the same cast was working for a rehearsal date and the filming one. “We had one rehearsal and then we filmed on one night,” says Alicandro. “Our rehearsal was the Wednesday and then our proper filming was on the Saturday.”
The decision to capture the work digitally did have an impact for the team. Already a significant undertaking to stage and tour a new production, the digital effort added a new dimension. Alicandro says: “It was such a whirlwind… I think we’re being very genuine when we say we just wanted to make it happen. We got so far into the process that we were too invested to let anything stand in our way!”
Streaming, capturing and rights
There was one chief consideration to make which was whether to live-stream the show to cinemas or solely capture it on film. The Space introduced ENB to a cinema specialist, Penny Nagel, who advised ENB on some of the issues. “You have to be sensitive to how local cinemas work with this kind of content,” says Nagel. “You don’t want to do a one-off screening head to head with a big season. As our booker at Cineworld says, ‘I can get my cultural audience out once or twice in a month, but not more than that’.”
The decision to film and then later release to cinemas was made because of that and also the extra expense of live-streaming. “The performances weren’t at a good time for the cinema market,” says Clark Charrington. So a live-streamed version would be unlikely to make its costs back – and wouldn’t get the ballet out to as many people as they hoped.
So the plan was to capture a performance and then, over and over, the team found that the key difficulties were less technical and more to do with the complexities of the rights. Any ENB show works with three unions – Equity, BECTU and the Musician’s Union – which each had their own standard agreements but for this there were also individual creatives to work with. What ENB wanted to do was unprecedented for the company, so just figuring out how much was the right amount to pay the different rights holders was new territory.
One thing that helped was that ENB had a very clear plan for how it wanted to distribute the film. “We were putting in fifty percent of the funding so we needed to be quite clear about how we were going to recoup that investment,” says Alicandro. “We knew it would be UK cinema and a bit of international – though international cinema really took off. We knew we wanted BBC or terrestrial broadcast and we knew that DVD was inevitable.”
Everything starts with the show itself and it was the engagement with theatre audiences that made both ENB and The Space certain that Giselle was the production to film. Nagel says: “It needed to be the right project and Giselle was that. It’s a well-known ballet, it has been reviewed amazingly well, and it was a big piece, which works particularly well on a big screen. It’s about looking at the medium and what will work artistically, and also about the names and the brand and what will sell. This was Giselle, Akram Khan and English National Ballet. All of those things meant that this was the right project, and one that would appeal to a cinema audience.”
If Giselle was the right English National Ballet show to film, then filming it digitally like this was the right thing for the company to do. “ENB is a touring company and it’s in our DNA to share ballet with as many people as possible,” explains Clark Charrington. “That’s what we’re here to do. Our ambition is to go to as many places as possible, but reality and funding mean we can’t always do that. But as one of our goals is to share and extend our reach, going to cinemas was a no-brainer.’
It was equally obvious that having gone to UK cinemas, ENB should attempt to show Giselle across the world but Alicandro says that what happened there was the biggest surprise. The film didn’t take off in America as much as it was expected to, but in so many other places it was a huge success, with screenings in Japan, Spain, Portugal and Russia.
TV has come along latterly “Quite late, actually, we came to understand the potential of international television,” he says. “A broadcast in Japan got over 100,000 viewers, which was incredible. And there are many more broadcasts planned in lots of other territories that we really hadn’t considered before.”
And the work has come home, with the BBC broadcasting Giselle on BBC Four on 31 March and then on demand on BBC iPlayer.
Outcomes and future developments
Giselle has been a huge success in terms of the variety of distribution secured on an international scale, with TV broadcasts due to take place in New Zealand, Sweden, Germany, Portugal, Italy and China in addition to the BBC and Japanese showings and the cinema distribution. The film has also been picked up by the airlines KLM, Cathay Pacific, Air France and China Air.
What’s more the DVD release made it to the number one spot of the Official Charts for music video during its first week of release. This is unprecedented for a classical DVD.
“We’ve also been the number 1 Performing Arts DVD on Amazon for a while. So I think we feel confident that we can say this worked well and was a great opportunity in terms of building our brand. It’s good that we have this in the bag, that we can say this is the sort of thing we can do. And yes, of course we want to do this again”, says Clark Charrington.
ENB will produce more shows this way but it’s learned that the company needs to do the work itself. “If we’d handed Giselle over to someone else, I think we would have regretted it,” says Clark Charrington. “This has been a learning exercise that we’re really grateful for. The Space helped us to achieve something that we had wanted to do for a long time, and gave us a chance to work with really good people, particularly the director Ross MacGibbon, who is a genius and captured Giselle so stunningly. We don’t want to take a step back; we don’t want to do it again at a lower level. We’ve set the bar high for ourselves.”
And has it met its commissioning objectives? Helen Spencer, Commissioning Executive at The Space for the project, thinks so. “We were really interested in supporting ENB to self-publish. They had a great piece of work that many people couldn't see live because of the costs of touring such a large production. What they didn't have in terms of experience of filming their own work they made up for in ambition.”
She also praises the team at ENB for their aspiration and tenacity. “They weren't 100% sure of all the platforms and territories where they might take they work at the beginning but the team were always focused and keen to explore new opportunites and did a lot of hard work up front to ensure they'd cleared the rights they'd need. They've subsequently distributed on cinema, TV and online both in the UK and worldwide. It was a joy to work with ENB, they jumped in with both feet, took some calculated risks financially and asked for help when they needed to. This is a perfect example of how successful self-publishing can be.”
Top Tips around bringing performance to a wider audience through digital platforms:
- Pick a project that is identifiably yours. Whatever your aims of bringing work to new audiences, if you can use it to build your own brand then you help your future projects too.
- Start negotiating rights immediately. “Rights and clearances will always take longer than you imagine,” says Dan Alicandro.
- If you do want to live-stream to cinemas, make sure you work with them six months or more in advance and avoid clashes with other shows or big film releases
- Budget for time spent on unexpected admin. “Such as figuring out how to park an OB truck around the Liverpool Empire,” says Alicandro. “I’m not sure I’ll ever use those skills again, but we spent a lot of time working out parking permits.”
- Plan your schedule so that everything and everyone is the same between rehearsal and filming.
- Decide early on exactly where how you are going to distribute the final film, such as cinema, TV and DVD. Assess where you’ll recoup your costs and also know where to focus your marketing.
- Make sure that everyone, from your technical team to your board, understands and shares your ambition for the project. Any risks or challenges that you face are easier to overcome when you have the backing of your organisation.