Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Image

Magazine article The Spectator

The Wrong Image

Article excerpt

I do not believe those who claim that theatre dance is a universal language. First, because even a superficial appreciation of that art presupposes a minimal knowledge of codes and formulae that are seldom universal. Second, because in order to be truly universal theatre dance should convey all those ideas and concepts that are normally expressed in words, and it does not. This is particularly true in the case of ballet and, most of all, in the case of the so-called narrative works.

As I wrote in these pages a few months ago, dance theorists and ballet masters from both the past and the present centuries have often acknowledged the limitations imposed by their art on the narration of a story. As George Balanchine once stated, there cannot be `mothers-in-law' in ballet, for such a concept is not translatable into movement. As a matter of fact, narrative choreographic masterworks owe their lasting success to the way the development of the action is carried forth through a dramatic exploration and/or a psychological introspection of the characters' reaction to selected events, and not to the mere narration of facts. Even those popular 19th-century classics based on feeble literary pretexts -- mostly prissy fairy tales - stand out for the range of metaphors and symbols prompted by and encoded in the chosen story line. Yet, many contemporary choreographers seem to have forgotten these golden rules and favour a sort of danced story-telling that lacks any kind of artistic depth.

David Bintley's Edward II, originally created for the Stuttgart Ballet and given its premiere in Birmingham last week, is a fitting example of this story-telling genre. I do not object to the subject, odd as it might appear. After all, geniuses such as Frederick Ashton, Kenneth MacMillan and John Cranko demonstrated that any source could become a great ballet. What I found disappointing and annoying, however, was the excessive literalism of the whole creation. Nothing is left to the imagination of the viewer, not even the notorious red hot poker that puts an end to the troubled life of the King. Such an ill-matched combination of realistic, often crude images 'copulating' pelvic thrusts, rude gestures, a jailer urinating on the King - and ballet steps results in a series of trivially spectacular images more becoming to one of those fashionable West End musicals than to a serious ballet.

The lack of drama stems also from a hardly innovative choreographic construction. It would appear that Bintley has opted to stick to the canons adopted in his previous narrative creations, paying no regard to the fact that the topic in question might require a different approach. Those who are familiar with his work can thus easily predict where and when the duets, the trios and the ensemble scenes are going to take place. In addition, the predictable movement vocabulary reminded me of the naive, yet spectacular, solutions to be found in some old Soviet ballets. Indeed, there are sporadic attempts at conferring a particular reading on the story. The sudden appearance of contemporary clothes - by Jasper Conran - in Act Two and the similarity between the dungeon and the dark room of a gay S/M club hint at an unflattering parallel between that society and the present one. Still, apart from being utterly deja vu, neither idea is developed in full.

Another plague of today's choreographic world is what some academics call, more or less appropriately, 'derivativism', namely the process of deriving a theatre work from a previous one by revisiting, revising and updating its content. …

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