The poetry of triangles, circles and Mr B

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The Independent Culture
I WAS ON stage at Covent Garden when Nureyev danced Apollo. Not actually as a performer, you understand, but as a fan, sitting on a bench in the wings. I remember the temperamental Tartar growling and prowling around behind the curtain as the audience settled, eventually allowing himself to be wrapped in curious bandages and then, 10 minutes late, nodding curtly that he was ready. Within moments he was spinning out of those wrappings under the powerful lights, to the pounding rhythms of Stravinsky's elemental music, sweat spraying from his shoulders like a garden sprinkler. It was paralysing to witness, but I wish I'd heard last week's Sunday Feature: Apollo (R3) beforehand. It would have made much more sense.

It's a bizarre idea, ballet for radio. Dancers seldom have to explain themselves, and they are usually pretty inarticulate. But the legendary Suzanne Farrell of the New York City Ballet is different. Modest and highly knowledgeable, she was lucid to the point of lyricism. Her role in Apollo was Terpsichore, the youngest and cleverest of the three muses who help to unswaddle the great baby of a god, and teach him the secrets of the universe. She talked us through the score, describing the shapes made by the dancers - the recurrent triangles, the interchanging circles, the resolving complexities in a work whose very name, she pointed out, includes both alpha and omega. She referred to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, "the apotheosis of the dance", which opens with the birth of those muses in the Hippocrene spring - and then she smiled to remember Balanchine himself, her Mr B, admitting that, actually, one position had been stolen from a Bovril advertisement in Piccadilly.

Her co-star from the NYCB, Edward Villella, remembered Mr B at 65, showing him how to dance the title role, wearing a double-breasted grey suit and inimitable style. The god, he had said, was eagle, matador and athlete, and Terpsichore's hand touch- ing his near the end had the same power as the hand touching Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "Dancers," said Balanchine, "are poets of gesture." And his best dancers became real poets remembering him.

The second ballet at the Opera House that night was Sir Frederick Ashton's Enigma Variations. By chance, one of those variations was also discussed this week, in Nimrod (R4). Ashton chose this piece to take to his Desert Island, as did Ken Livingstone, Nigel Lawson and dozens of other castaways. Adrian Mourby presented a diverting investigation into the extraordinary popularity of what has become almost a second national anthem. An organist reported playing it three times a week at funerals, but its origins prove to have been anything but tragic: Elgar wrote it as a compliment to his publisher who had urged him not to give up composing. Its instant success rather startled him.

It was interesting to learn how the succession of "weeping phrases" and musical suspensions hold the clue to its emotional power, but I did rather agree with the critic who said that it becomes unbearably sentimental when played, as Leonard Bernstein did, too slowly. Listen to tomorrow night's performance, as the centenary Proms (R3) roll into action, and judge for yourself whether or not Leonard Slatkin falls into the muddy pit dug by his namesake.

Sentimentality is not something you could accuse Kate Adie of indulging. She was the first subject interviewed by Bel Mooney in Devout Sceptics (R4). The devoutness is questionable, the scepticism is not. Mooney is an excellent interviewer, but the Adie carapace is a tough nut to crack with gentle persua- sion - or perhaps a war report- er just sees too many horrors.

The appalling news from Bosnia has rightly been preoccupying Radio 4 this week, beginning with Monday's interview on Today. The Bosnian Serb spokesman talking to Jim Naughtie was called Misha Gavrilovich, but he sounded like a fearsome mechanical device. A stern, mesmeric reasonableness informed his voice, but the words were icy. The Serbs had their own refugees, thank you; they had only shelled a humanitarian convoy because it was improperly identified; Muslims were not forced to move from their homes, they chose to; the captured young men would be questioned and released; we were just swallowing racist propaganda; good heavens, there is a war on. Naughtie's exasperation grew splenetic, understandably. At last he ex- ploded: "You are in no position to accuse anyone of racism!"

And of course he was not. But the issues are far from simple, as was illustrated the next day on Call Nick Ross (R4). Serbian callers declared that arms are being massed in Muslin enclaves to attack Serbs, and conjured up a wild image of a fundamentalist Muslim state in the making, deeply at odds with the pictures of distraught families dominating our front pages. Ross, manfully trying to maintain balance, was having none of it, but these confrontations stir uneasy doubts. Could we tell if we were being fed propaganda? The answer must be yes, because we trust brave, dispassionate, disillusioned reporters to tell us. On Today, again, Malcolm Brabhant, his voice tense with controlled despair, talked of a hopeless shambles outside Zepa, and we remembered, grimly, that the word literally means "slaughterhouse". And Jeremy Bowen in Sarajevo said flatly that the UN operation in central Bosnia simply isn't worth talk- ing about, that unless it is made certain that Gorazde will be properly defended, the Bos- nian Serbs "will be licking their lips". I'm sorry to say that I believe him.

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