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.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times