Ballet: Men in tights and madness

Classical dance is in the air with Black Swan and the Ballets Russes.

The unexpected discovery of a grainy scrap of footage from 1928 showing the Ballets Russes in rehearsal, reported last week, seems particularly timely. The recent V&A exhibition, Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes 1909-1929, demonstrated the company's vast influence and significance. Under the direction of impresario Sergei Diaghilev and with collaborators such as Stravinsky, Picasso, Bakst and Chanel, the Ballets Russes was more of a pioneering cultural movement than a mere dance troupe. Following the release of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, there has been much critical chattering that has placed ballet in the public consciousness. Many reviews have accused Aronofsky of overblown hamminess or stylistic pilfering. Newspapers and radio programmes have wheeled out professional dancers to pour scorn on the imperfect balletic technique of lead actress Natalie Portman. Some have decried the ridiculous prospect of a young woman sprouting feathers. Others have thrown up their hands in horror at the apparently cynical inclusion of a torrid lesbian scene between two beautiful actresses - a gambit surely designed to entice a leery male audience into watching a film that features tutus. But above and beyond this, Black Swan is a film about female breakdown, which uses the themes and preoccupations of ballet to delineate a psychological disintegration, blurring the boundaries between "life", "art" and paranoid nightmare.

Much has been made of Black Swan's relation to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 classic The Red Shoes. The film stars Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, a young ballerina catapulted to stardom by a suave and flinty Russian impresario, who in return demands a complete dedication to dance at the expense of "life" and love. (Like Nina in Black Swan, certain types of privation are necessary to elicit true artistic expression - similarly Victoria suffers an unpleasant demise in the grip of uncanny forces, destroyed by the battle between love and art). The powerful influence of director over dancer mirrors the peculiar and proprietorial relationship that Diaghilev fostered with the dancers of the Ballet Russes. Last week's discovery exemplifies this - since capturing the company on film was officially forbidden by the impresario, the footage was probably unauthorised. Openly homosexual, Diaghilev took several male dancers as lovers, including Léonide Massine (who stars in The Red Shoes) and most famously, Vaslav Nijinsky. Jealous rage erupted when Nijinksy, away from Diaghilev's supervision, married a wealthy Hungarian countess. He was dismissed from the company. After suffering a nervous breakdown in 1919, Nijinsky's last years were spent in psychiatric hospitals and asylums across Europe, where he was treated for schizophrenia.

Reviewing Black Swan, New Statesman dance critic Sanjoy Roy notes that the film "appears to be part of a long film tradition in which ballet is associated with madness, sickness, torture, the paranormal and death." The narrative elements of classical works themselves often contain disquieting Gothic themes that go far beyond the popular misconception of ballet as a saccharine diversion largely enjoyed by small girls and effeminate men. In the great Romantic ballet Giselle, emotional abandonment leads to lunacy and death when the eponymous character falls in love with a disguised and flippantly flirtatious prince. Innocence is lost amid deception; the vengeful force of warped female sexuality dominates in the figures of the ethereal 'Wilis'.

The physical beauty or contortions of dance evoke moral ambiguities which are in turn suggestive of wider human complexities. The idea of transgression is important here. The Ballets Russes' far-reaching influence was borne out of Diaghilev's innovative merging of dance with Modernist set design, costume and music. Notoriety was courted - when it premiered in 1912, the eroticism of L'Apres Midi d'un Faune caused public outcry. (The editor of Le Figaro exclaimed: "We have had a faun, incontinent, with vile movements of erotic bestiality and gestures of heavy shamelessness"). A year later, the primitive scenarios and violent choreography of The Rite of Spring caused a riot. The scandal, declared Diaghilev, was "just what I wanted." In terms of gender, the Ballets Russes is significant, especially given the sexual machinations and manipulations at play within the company. Dancers like Nijinsky brought a powerful new physique to the stage, but this overt masculinity was complicated by the epicene nature of roles such as the Rose in Spectre de la Rose or the exotic Golden Slave in Scheherazade. Visually, the dancer could be subject to a blatantly homoerotic or desirous gaze, or objectively appreciated as an aesthetic embodiment of grace and strength.

The combination of music and movement, in the absence of words, creates a physical language that can articulate the most primal or transcendent human experience. It isn't just bony girls and men in tights.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis