Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Les Misérables, released 11 January

After its extreme success on the stage – having been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries, and in 21 languages across the globe - Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables finally hits our cinema screens this Friday.

With an impressive cast list including Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter, the film will deliver the epic story of ex-prisoner Jean Valijean in 19th century Paris, as he meets factory worker Fantine and agrees to care for her daughter whilst being tracked down by policeman Javert for breaking his parole. The film is released in cinemas on January 11th.

Circus

Kooza, Cirque du Soleil, Royal Albert Hall, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AP, Jan 5 - Feb 10 2013

Cirque du Soleil brings their show Kooza to the UK for the first time this week at the Royal Albert Hall. The spectacle taps into their origins, combining a mix of the traditional acrobatics and clowning. The visuals have been described as ‘electrifying’ and ‘exotic’, while the show itself is to depict the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner who strives to belong. All culminating in a spectacular display of contortionism, high wire and a rather ominous-sounding ‘Wheel of Death’.

Theatre

Old Times, Harold Pinter Theatre, 6 Panton Street SW1Y 4DN, Jan 12 – 6April 2013

This is the first Pinter play to be performed in the freshly-named Harold Pinter Theatre, previously known as the old Comedy Theatre. Actress Kristin Scott Thomas and director Ian Rickson join forces in the “seductive and compelling” drama, Old Times. The pair had previously collaborated in Betrayal, also written by the late playwrite.

Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell complete the minimal cast, with the two female actresses swapping between the roles of Anna and Kate from show to show. The play tells the story of three friends reminiscing over past times, which results in conflicting recollections and the reawakening of sexual tensions.

Opera

La Bohème, Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD, 5 Jan – 12March 2013

The Royal Opera House opens its doors for John Copley’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The tear-jerker set in Paris in the 19th century sees Rodolfo, a meagre poet, meet Mimì, a seamstress, and fall passionately in love. Their happiness, however, is threatened when Rodolfo learns that Mimì is gravely ill. Reviews have deemed the Opera as “fresh and natural", and describe the singing as “beautifully shaped”.

Ballet

Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4ES , 9-19 January 

The English National Ballet begin their tour of Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty in London this week; with choreography from Kenneth Macmillan alongside Tchaikovsky’s best-loved ballet music, including the Rose Adagio, and the music that was used as the melody for Once Upon a Dream as featured in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Extravagant costumes and detailed set design help to tell the legendary fairytale of Princess Aurora who must endure the curse of sleeping for a hundred years, after pricking her finger on a needle on her sixteenth birthday. The ballet has been described as a “triumph” that would “inspire not one but two generations”.

A previous performance of opera La Bohème. Photograph: Getty Images
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Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date

The more mainstream Beyoncé becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Beyoncé has long been associated with empowerment. From her Destiny’s Child days to B’Day to 2013’s self-titled album, instructions for empowerment are everywhere. Make your own money, and don’t let any man take it from you. You are beautiful, and you should feel empowered by your beauty. You can be successful on your own, but a relationship can be empowering, too. Your existence is powerful, in all its forms.

Beyoncé has always sung primarily to an audience that is black and female, which is essentially what transports so many of these songs from generically feel-good to genuinely radical, even if this difference is often elided on the dancefloor.

As a black woman making art for other black women, Beyoncé has often functioned as a cultural linchpin for movements of gender and racial equality before she has explicitly attached herself to them: “Beyoncé” and “feminism” were used in the same sentence long before she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or stood in front of a giant neon sign blazing “FEMINIST” at the 2014 VMAs. And she and her husband Jay-Z were entwined with #BlackLivesMatter before she included graffiti reading “STOP SHOOTING US” in one of her music videos.

But Beyoncé has continually surprised audiences with her readiness to engage explicitly with these complex issues in more experimental forms as her impossible success continues to snowball: in a kind of inversion on the traditional narrative of white male punk musicians selling out, the more mainstream she becomes, the more she functions as a marginal artist.

Formation, her newest single, which dropped on Saturday, takes Beyoncé into territory that feels simultaneously familiar and untrodden. It’s a trap-influenced, synthy track brimming with distinctive reminders of her black Southern upbringing and her phenomenal success. Lyrics about black self-love, the pulsing undercurrent of Beyoncé’s entire career, take on new significance in how explicit and familial they are: “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.”

Financial gain as a challenge to oppression – an implication of so many of her songs – finds new, more direct, expression: your “best revenge is your paper”. All these words take on greater significance dressed as they are in such potent visual imagery: Beyoncé stands on top of a drowning police car in New Orleans and fans herself in period clothing in a pregnant, ghostly house reminiscent of Beloved’s 124. Without a doubt, this is Beyoncé‘s most radical release.

It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé makes links between music and political change in her music itself, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because music has personally empowered Beyoncé to have a kind of cultural and financial success that most people (of any race) could only ever dream of, allowing her to challenge cultural norms in becoming a symbol of independence, sex appeal, authenticity, achievement, blackness and femininity, within a racist society that often sees those traits as incongruous. (This is made explicit in the lyric, “You just might be a black Bill Gates”: world-changing levels of success are still seen as white and male.)

Metaphorically, because Beyoncé‘s music has united black female bodies in organised movement for years (think the Single Ladies” dance). She plays with this in Formation: the line “Get in formation” is an instruction for empowerment. With its punning echo of “get information”, it calls on you to get ready to dance, and to resist. As Dr Zandria F. Robinson notes, it is “a black feminist, black queer, and black queer feminist theory of community organizing and resistance, [...] formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement”.

The moment of pause is particularly significant because it is so often dangerous – something that the video for Formation” illustrates in its shots of a young black boy dancing, then opening his arms outstretched, in front of white riot police. They pause before raising their own hands. The poet Claudia Rankine once told me that these silent moments are important because of their potential danger: the calm before the storm. “The white imagination lives inside that space. In those seconds [...] is all of white supremacist history building up. You [can] end up on the other side of that with a dead body.”

Beyoncé has used her own moment of suspense productively – fans and critics noted her “deafening silence” on racial equality, asking where her Instagram essay or impassioned tweets were when her audience needed them. Instead, she took the time to craft a thoughtful, nuanced, forceful anthem made by and for black women that will doubtlessly be consumed by audiences indiscriminately around the world (and Jay-Zs streaming service Tidal simultaneously donated $1.5m to #BlackLivesMatter).

A woman often criticised for her enthusiastic engagement with capitalism (like Rihanna, whose “prosperity gospel” is beautifully explained here by Doreen St Felix), Beyoncé has, in characteristic style, used Formation to demonstrate how the master’s tools can sometimes be used to dismantle the master’s house from the inside. As Britt Julious writes, “As long as we live in this world with these systems, the best manner of disrupting, of surviving, of taking what’s yours is using the same methods they might have used on you. Beyoncé knows what she’s doing. Who else could bring Black Panthers to the Super Bowl?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.