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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Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser