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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit