A glimpse into what it takes to produce world-class ballet, from the Royal Ballet.
Here’s a treat. The full version of The Nutcracker, danced by the Royal Ballet, and made available by the Guardian for viewing from the 19th to the 26th. Get it while you can. One of the things I most keenly miss from Seattle is seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet version, with sets by Maurice Sendak, every Christmas.
Here’s a taster of the PNB version.
A simple melding of two photos. The building is the McCaw Hall in Seattle, home to Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet. The ballerina is Ariana Lallone, who recently retired as principal dancer after 24 years with PNB. A brilliant dancer, she took over the stage whenever she appeared – I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
The McCaw Hall photo is my own and I found Ariana’s picture on the internet. I like the way her X-shaped pose breaks through the vertical lines of the building, while her red tutu stands out against its blue-steel colour. Both are lean, leggy, and elegant.
I went to see Black Swan last night at The Picture House in Campbeltown. I’d been intrigued by the reviews, which cast it either as a steaming pile of dingo’s kidneys or the Second Coming, with not much in between. And I’d have gone anyway, having seen Swan Lake danced by Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.
Bugger. Shouldn’t have made that link, because now I can see what I’m missing – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – my favourite Shakespearean play danced by PNB.
Anyway, to drag myself back to Campbeltown, the film took me on a journey. I started out irritated by the absurd, overblown, melodramatic over-the-topness of the whole thing, manifested in sighs, tuttings and looking at my watch. None of characters behaved in a naturalistic way (what good acting is all about, surely) and instead paraded themselves as stereotypes against a backdrop of threatening, often surreal imagery and ambient sound.
Nina’s sexually-repressed, driven, perfectionist, self-harming, anorexic and bulimic character came over as the compleat ballerina as envisaged by the tabloid press, living at home with her obsessed ballerina mum, who gave up an unsuccessful dancing career to have Nina. Not a healthy relationship.
Then there’s the lecherous director, the Svengali-like Thomas Leroy, taking every opportunity for a grope, all in the interests of bringing out the Black Swan qualities of his protege.
The least forced of the characterizations was Lily, Nina’s understudy and rival both for the Black Swan part, and also for Leroy. This may be prejudice on my part – Mila Kunis floats my boat.
Threaded throughout all this is the overt imagery representing Nina’s dual personality and the emergence of her repressed self as the Black Swan. There is much heavy-handed use of mirrors and mocking reflections.
So far so irritating. But as Nina began falling to pieces, and as the film increasingly reflected her distorted view of reality, the OTT factor began to work in the film’s favour, although perhaps not as intended. It became so absurd that I started laughing out loud and with that release, really enjoyed it for the first time.
By the end I was hooked on this ridiculous film, and all the critical road blocks I’d encountered were off in another aesthetic universe. The climax is exhilarating and astounding, with its first night performance that will make or break Nina as she reaches within herself for the Black Swan she hates and loves and needs. And the ending is, quite simply, perfect
Black Swan probably bears as much resemblance to the world of ballet as Braveheart does to medieval Scottish history, but it works brilliantly as long as you don’t expect it to. I’d happily see Black Swan again, leaving my critical faculties at home, and just enjoy the film for what it is – a beautiful, sexy romp through Swan Lake with Edgar Allan Poe and William Burroughs as creative consultants.
I’m feeling really homesick for Seattle. Tonight is the last performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. Martha and I would go every Christmas, a tradition built up over 20 years as housemates. Here’s the trailer:
Always the same performance, with only the dancers changing from year to year, and the same, brilliant Maurice Sendak set. That didn’t matter. It was a fixed point of pure pleasure in the year, and a forgetting of all the cares of the world.
On this freezing night of driving sleet, I want something to warm my hands and heart around. And it’s thousands of miles away in another world.