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Recording History by Barbara Newman

Posted on April 18, 2018

Giselle smaller

In 1979, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and the Dance Film Archive of the University of Rochester in New York restored 15 minutes of silent film shot between 1902 and 1906 and featuring the leading artists of the Royal Danish Ballet. Nine tiny ballet excerpts sprang to life, with added piano accompaniment matching the appropriate music to each fragment.

Some day, Ross MacGibbon’s Akram Khan’s Giselle will open a window onto ballet in the UK in the early 21st century just as those 15 minutes allow us to glimpse the shapely style of early 20th-century ballet. For now, his film serves a more practical purpose, carrying English National Ballet to viewers who can’t access it onstage.

They won’t be disappointed. The film so effectively captures the production that it records both its strengths and weaknesses. At its best, the camera thrusts you directly among the stamping peasants and between the lovers. It pulls you away from the unexpected appearance of the nobles, heightening the measured formality of their presence, and it surrounds you with the barbaric fury of the vengeful Wilis. It illuminates every nuance of Tamara Rojo’s Giselle and Jeffrey Cirio’s Hilarion – you can nearly hear them breathe – and it reinforces Khan’s gift for structure by showing the ensemble’s shifting patterns from shifting viewpoints.

On the other hand, anyone who doesn’t know the story will have to make sense of the sketchy love trio and the group of visitors who absorb one of its men into their midst. In the second act, I mean, after the film’s interval, newcomers to the work may wonder who the ferocious women are, why they’re so angry, and whether Rojo is meant to represent a disembodied ghost or a desperately pleading woman or neither one.

Stranger still, the production’s cumulative power has diminished, maybe because the jump cuts fracture the continuity, maybe because without the sound of the feet, whole passages of dancing evoke a stilted silent movie. In the end, Khan’s new vision of the old story captures less of the past than the title suggests. As a portrait of ballet today, however, it’s a winner.

In 2008, the artist Tacita Dean made a significant contribution to dance history by filming Merce Cunningham in a short solo only a year before his death. Arriving in London for the first time as part of an extensive exhibition of Dean’s art, STILLNESS….(six performances, six films) was made without rehearsal in one of the Cunningham company studios. Having shot six takes of the dance, Dean combined them into a single work that the National Portrait Gallery is showing in one room. The solo consists of three poses set to the three movements of John Cage’s composition 4’ 33”, a musical piece containing ambient sound but no musical content.

That’s as much as I want to tell you. If you’re interested in dance generally, and in contemporary dance and history and experimentation in particular, go to the gallery if you possibly can to experience STILLNESS… for yourself. If initially you don’t see anything happening, stay in that room a bit longer and look again. Cunningham once said, “If you have certain fixed expectations, then you look for those and miss something else. If you don’t make demands but really look, then more often than not, something is interesting.”

Some people think the only way to make music is to extract sound from musical instruments. Some people think dance is movement alone. By devoting their entire lives to broader definitions of art and to methods of realising those definitions, Cunningham and Cage changed the arts themselves. “My own ideas about dancing,” Cunningham said, “have always included the possibility of both pedestrian movement at one end of the scale, virtuoso movement at the other end and everything in between.”

It doesn’t matter if Tacita Dean knows or understands Cunningham’s ideas. They’re on the screen and in all the dances for everyone to enjoy.

STILLNESS….(six performances, six films) is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until May 28.

For information about the cinema screenings of Akram Khan’s Giselle from April 25, click here

Pictured: English National Ballet in Akram Khan’s Giselle. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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