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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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear