The Easter And May-Day Bank Holidays - Part One
Beginning with the End
We've had a good run of holidays - first Easter and May Day. But, the final week of the Easter holiday caused me some anxiety, but not on behalf of our son. I now cease to worry about how he might cope when he is back at school - he seems to be taking everything in his stride and he even appears to be thriving. The almost broken child of eighteen months ago is such a distant memory that he struggles now to remember how home-sick he was. This time, I am much more concerned about myself. Having him back for three weeks has been rejuvenating for all of us and the temporary nature of his presence did not loom over us, like it normally might at a weekend, knowing that he was soon going to be gone.
During this time, we became a family once again - all four of us interacting. He is growing up, and some subtle changes were beginning to be noticeable: his humour has become a bit more adult - it is even drier than before, and he is also beginning to play around with the odd double-entendre. He is also more robust and self-confident. Our children have become inseparable from one another. Starved of each other's company during term time, they become eager to pack in all the fun that they have missed; constantly inventing, laughing, sometimes screaming when the joke has been taken too far. Once again, as a family, we felt whole.
It was only during his last week of the holiday, when his sister was back at school that the realisation struck me: we would gain a breathing space in which we'd look forward to the May bank holiday when he would again be home for four long days, and then that would be it - we'd lose him. Ballet was going to ruin it all once again. The sense of loss that I sometimes experience is immense. I can hardly breathe. It seems to be especially acute when he has been home for an extended period of time. Sometimes I imagine an alternative reality in which we exist in a parallel universe:
We would be living together all the time. Our son would go to a local school, and sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every day doing his homework. We'd have to ask his younger sister to not distract him. He would be involved in after school activities which might require him being taken there or being picked up. We'd all eat together, and catch up on the each other's daily news in person, live - not relying on Skype or email. There would be a welcome banality to our lives.
However some things would also be missing - unknown to us. Weekends would not have the same sense of occasion; they would be less sacred. We would not have learned how to value the precious time that we have together. The children would understand that familiarity breeds contempt, rather than absence making the heart grow fonder. Perhaps I wouldn't be as meticulous with my diary - making sure that nothing intrudes on those rare random week days that he is at home. If possible, we try and turn these days into events: we go to galleries; eat at his favourite restaurant; explore places that we have never been to before. It's special when his sister can join us and she is also not at school, or when their mum is not working; but it's just as special when there are the two of us. I do not take the time I have with my family for granted. These are the things that I never would have learned had he not gone away to boarding school. It hurts me to say it, but I am grateful for this initially unwanted experience of our son's ballet training.
It's probable that if we didn't have to suffer the pain of absence, that we wouldn't also understand the intense joy of being together - and it is this thought that I cling onto now that he is gone, and the long summer term stretches ahead. Our family landscape is one of peaks and troughs - preferable always to a flat plain with a clear view of the horizon.
Frankenstein - The Royal Ballet Company - Liam Scarlett
It seems like a strange choice for a ballet - why should a gothic horror story lend itself to a classical form of dance? The nature of the production makes this question resonate even more urgently; it is a production in which the skill of the performers transcends the somewhat stagnant staging.
The first act is unsatisfying. The effect of the huge sets is incredulity - action confined to small spaces . This presents a somewhat old-fashioned mode for story-telling. The drama is heightened to a point where the dancers must resort to histrionics - acting that is punctuated by flicks and gasps as if we were watching a silent movie or exaggerated amateur dramatics. The baby abandoned by the death of his mother results in a clichéd clawing of hands and banging of fists - expressionism familiar to us from such films as Nosferatu. This style of acting has not aged well. I remained unmoved, and a little despairing that this is the art-form which demands so much attention in my family life. It feels foolish to be investing any amount of time, effort or money in something so unsophisticated.
There is little doubt that this production has been well resourced. The attention to detail in the set and costume is worthy, but ultimately ineffective. Theatre - even dance theatre - has had to move beyond these literal representations of historical period, because compared to screen, an audience at the theatre will always feel somewhat disappointed and short-changed. So the wooden panelling, and brass rails in the lecture theatre might make for a convincing interior, but the machine that sparks life into the body of the monster is woeful: a discarded prop from the time when the Tardis was steam-punk. Thomas Whitehead throws himself into the role of the austere and aloof professor with skilful nonchalance. He establishes an authority which has some grounding in believability and authenticity - such a role might easily lend itself to becoming a pantomime villain.
Also in the first act, I fail to see how this use of a female corps de ballet can be justified in the 21st century. They are either assistants of the professor seemingly being groped by the male students, or prostitutes in a tavern obviously being groped by the male students, but also allowed to do a little bit of groping of their own. These two scenes require rigorous dramaturgical examination. Their contribution to the story is tenuous, apart from delaying our introduction to the monster.
The remaining two acts offer something different. There is a relief in moving from claustrophobic interiors to a an icy exterior. We also return to the world that ballet presents most effectively: courtly life. Act two gives us a birthday party, and act three depicts a wedding - we are once again in the environ of some of our best-loved narrative ballets from Nutcracker to La Fille Mal Gardé: the spectacle of society's dance rituals. The game of blind man's buff during the party scene is tantalising. There is a lovely jeopardy in watching a dancer dance when blind-folded - even if it is a trick - and even more so when one of the participants of the game is a hideously deformed monster. Steven McRae makes for a terrific monster - full of the tragedy of cosmic abandonment, an elegant human spirit contained in a deformed exterior. The twelve year old, Guillem Cabrera Espinach is breath-taking. A charismatic and beguiling performance from one so young, precociously capable of embodying a role completely. Their pas de deux is perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The wedding dance in Act Three has something Senecan about it. The ghosts of those murdered reappear, but like Macbeth or Richard III, only Frankenstein can see them. Bonelli cuts a heroic figure, but this is the first time we experience any sympathy for his Frankenstein. He is given insufficient characterisation which is a shame because period costume suits him. He wears it well.
The ending is problematic. In having Frankenstein kill himself we are left with the impression of a victim succumbing to weakness, rather than a hero with the courage to endure the tragic consequences of one misguided action. This Frankenstein is already yielding to suffering too early in the narrative. This, for me, is the central flaw in the story-telling.
The novel is epic. It sprawls across the wastelands of the Arctic as the creator and his prodigy - both abandoned by civilisation and trying to make sense of their existence. Staging Frankenstein as a ballet risks resulting in something over-contained. With the loss of the landscape, the vastness of the loneliness is also sacrificed. As moving as Steven McRae might be as this strange forsaken creature, the story becomes trivialised, glimpsed only through the point of view of a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed household.
One question remains about this production: did nobody consider the role of the women? All the women in the story are victims - needlessly suffering at the hands of men and unable to fight back. Offering the women no way out of their plight is by default condoning their condition. This is what lingers after seeing the production. Our most important and creative ballet company seems to be endorsing the oppression of its own women - an anachronism in sentiment as well as staging. We end where we began - this is a surprising choice of material for a new ballet.