An Iphigenia for the Jerry Springer age

Pina Bausch's interpretation of Euripedes.

The programme to the late Pina Bausch's dance-opera Iphigenie auf Tauris says of her pieces that they "consistently relate to things every member of the audience knows or has experienced physically". Well, I'm not so sure how many of us have experienced Iphigenia's particular domestic problems since she comes from the sort of dysfunctional and frankly murderous family that would make even our own Jerry Springer blanch.

Offered up for sacrifice by her father Agamemnon, she is rescued by the gods and whisked to a safe house in Crimea under the dubious stewardship of a dodgy Ukrainian. Meanwhile, back at Agamemnon Central, her mother (Clytemnestra) slaughters her father, only to be bumped off, in turn, by her brother Orestes. And now, to cap it all, the dodgy Ukrainian is strongly insistent that Iphigenia kill her own matricidal brother.

Hardly the stuff of everyday life, but I think I know what the commentator means. Bausch has a knack for keeping things brutally simple, and she uses choreography like a scalpel to flay off any excess. Her dancers have a pliancy, but it's the pliancy of steel, as they carve out the emotional heart of the matter: expressions of friendship, of love, and sorrow. This we relate to.

And yet, in some ways, this production is an immodest embarrassment of riches. The Greek myth, as interpreted by Euripedes, is the inspirational lode for Christoph Gluck's heady 1781 opera, which is staged here at Sadler's Wells complete with full orchestra in the pit and a full complement of soloists and choir, who are positioned out of sight in the boxes. The dancing on stage is but the final layer on this most moreish of cakes.

The dancers themselves are preternaturally silent, and there is a clear dissociation between voice and movement. This is a curious state of affairs: many in the audience were craning to see the singers, and struggling with the synopsis to work out who was who. But when the singers' molten notes pour from on high it's like the gods themselves have given the characters voice, which is a neat touch when we're dealing with the top-down control of the Greek pantheon. (And even those with limited German could get the emotional voltage spike when the siblings recognise each other: "Mein bruder!" "Meine schwester!") At the same time Bausch has a knack of suggesting a very human nervous energy behind the dancers' repetitive rituals; they appear to be locked into behaviour patterns by their anxieties and desires. Iphigenia and her tribe, as in all good Euripidean drama, have an inner life.

Initially the cool neutrals and minimalism of Bausch's pared-down aesthetic seem just a little too much like a 1990s Calvin Klein campaign: the Greek boys -- Orestes and his lover Pylades -- are stripped to their teeny white boxer shorts, while Iphigenia and her priestesses are all kitted out in tasteful slips. Gradually, however, the monochrome design reveals subtle intimations of colour and variation to suggest culture and statehood: a little Hellenic cut here, a swirl of Russian capes there.

As for the boys in briefs, the exposure of their bodies in this way makes them acutely vulnerable, for all their powerful musculature, and there's a feel of tenderness and softness in the scenes between the two men. From the moment the pair first appear, it is clear their fates are as entwined as their limbs: at one point their bodies are slung on a slab, and it is not clear where one starts and the other finishes; at times their co-ordinated attitudes and steps are like images from a Parthenon frieze, as they dance their way to immortality.

The stark beauty of Bausch's subdued palette is at its most powerful in the final act, when a huge white screen is lit up as the background for the impending sacrifice. This is also the moment when the music, the singing and the dancing stop, as a votary walks with excruciating slowness across the stage and places her white flowers on the altar.

In this story Orestes' death is averted, but the inspirational Pina Bausch herself died last year, and there is an elegiac quality to this show, as performed by her company Tanztheater Wuppertal. The dance plays out like extended Greco-Roman funeral games, somehow. And it is indeed testament to her work that this piece, originally devised in 1974, if a little decorous, still feels fresh and modern.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.