Posted on September 6, 2016
Dance maligned, dance misused, dance as window-dressing. You wouldn’t expect a live performance to inspire such thoughts, but in less than a week I’ve seen two that do, and the combination was quite unsettling.
Let’s start with the worse offence, perpetrated by the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre. A new version of an old story, Her name was Carmen supposedly transfers the familiar narrative to a geographically anonymous refugee camp. The company’s ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova, and its director, her husband, Konstantin Tachkin, travelled to Macedonia and Serbia with Oxfam’s assistance to meet the homeless people whose desperation the ballet depicts. Oxfam’s Refugee Crisis Appeal will receive £1 from the takings for every ticket sold here, which means these artists put their money where their mouths are to fulfil their noble ambition to help others.
Olga Kostel, the choreographer, may have created the ballet with equally honourable ambitions in mind – the programme provided no information except her name. Leaving aside her intentions, which we cannot know, to watch their result, you found that it neither deepened our sympathy for those victims nor enhanced our understanding of their plight. It also didn’t do much for the art of ballet by realising terror, violence, sexual passion and tenderness as amateurs would if they improvised on the same subjects.
When not confined behind wire fencing, the dancers relied on sweeping battements and huge split jetés for every situation, careening bravely between groups of brutal police and pushy paparazzi. Remember the disgraced prostitutes stumbling off the boat at the start of Manon’s third act? Kenneth MacMillan crafted a dance to reveal their exhaustion and helplessness; Kostel’s soothing aid workers doled out blankets and protective embraces.
Kolesnikova fared no better, tossing herself with determination but no apparent purpose between Jose, a security guard, and Garcia, the leader of the people smugglers. Wearing a fringed red dress, diamond drop earrings, and the only pair of pointe shoes in sight, she held the spotlight and probably most of the public’s attention without defining an individual character or generating any emotional tension.
So this was an evening of dance in which the dancing achieved absolutely nothing. My guest noticed that some viewers stood and cheered at the end, which the dancers certainly deserved for dedicating their fine training to such physical banalities. If that audience believed they were seeing ballet of quality, ballet itself is in a very sad state.
First produced in 1957 and largely remembered for Laurence Olivier’s performance in both the play and the 1960 film, John Osborne’s The Entertainer folds together the overlapping crises of a man, a family and a nation. The man, Archie Rice, a music-hall performer, has nowhere to go as rock and roll chases music hall into oblivion. His family is falling apart and the UK is facing international humiliation because of its invasion of Suez, so each layer of events, private and public, ingeniously reflects the others.
What’s the link between this and Her name was Carmen? Well, the ballet needed better choreography than clichéd gestures but got none; the play didn’t need choreography at all and got it anyway. For the music-hall scenes, the director, Rob Ashford, used four chorus girls, fresh as paint in sequins and plumed headdresses, to beef up Archie’s outdated stage turn. Perhaps he thought today’s audience would be bored without them, but that’s Osborne’s point: solo entertainers like Archie couldn’t survive as the world moved on and tastes changed.
Though entirely capable of holding any stage alone, Branagh is more convincing in the domestic scenes, at home with his family, than “onstage” in his fading act. He does a little tap, a little business with a straw boater and a cane, the four leggy girls do a little tap around him, but he dances as if he’s just learned how. Is he truly uncomfortable in his own body, or is that an interpretive choice about Archie, who is, so to speak, on his last legs?
It really doesn’t matter whether we can tell the difference. What matters is that Ashford didn’t trust Osborne, who, in words alone, delivers the sleaze of those failing stage shows, the seediness of the performers’ lives, and the frustration and disappointment that defined the last moments of their era. As complacent as a television drama, the production slides lightly across the play’s gritty substance, and the dancing, like a dusting of glitter on a corpse, merely distracts us from Archie’s inevitable fate.
Pictured: Kenneth Branagh as Archie Rice in The Entertainer. Photograph: JOHAN PERSSON.