The pitfalls of celebrity are many and various, but there can be none worse than to be the subject of a Peter Schaufuss ballet. He did Diana, Princess of Wales and included a chorus of dancing tampons. He did the Rolling Stones in a show called Satisfaction, which didn't give any. He did Elvis, rousing the ire of the Elvis estate to such an extent that he had to pretend its central character was someone else. Now, in Divas, he has applied his fevered hand to a trio of Forties songbirds.
But Schaufuss's three-part dance spectacle isn't really about Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland. It's a series of hysterically emotional portraits of their music. Original recordings of such hits as "La vie en rose", "Mein blondes Baby" and "Over the Rainbow" are relayed at alarming volume while a dancer, dressed to suggest the appropriate singer, engages with a piece of furniture: a tall-backed metal chair which variously stands in for coffin, tombstone or Olympian plinth. While it's often said that you only ever need one good idea, Divas proves otherwise. Schaufuss works that chair to death.
Sauciness being this choreographer's stock-in-trade, you soon learn to predict how each sequence will pan out. You know, for instance, when a bare arm unfurls from behind the chair-back, that you're soon going to see another, and then a pair of bare legs, suggesting that their owner isn't wearing anything. Ooh la la! And you're no more surprised, in a Folies Bergère number, to find fully dressed men partnering girls in their undies, or Piaf (the hardly sparrow-like Caroline Petter) fervidly making love to that chair in "Je ne regrette rien". But in the German section Schaufuss's want of taste makes your jaw drop.
Once Dietrich (Zara Deakin) has slunk about in her furs for a while, on storms a platoon of Fritzes, complete with short moustaches and enthusiastic goosestep. So far, so clichéd, but once the soldiers start to purse their lips and fondle their own rumps, you wonder what historical point Schaufuss is trying to make. It gets worse, as the stage fills with beaming blondes in lederhosen, and more soldiers, this time lugging corpses from the battlefield. The Dietrich segment closes with the lugubrious "Sag mir, wo die Blumen sind" (better known as the Sixties protest anthem "Where have all the Flowers Gone?") as the glaze-eyed diva gazes on three silver tombstones in a shower of crimson petals, while a Hitler Youth plies his sweetheart with a posy. Gott im Himmel!
The pity is that, in more sensitive hands, such a show could have worked. I relished the chance to hear the more obscure songs, and was fascinated to note how potent a sense of national identity came across, whatever the lyrics. Garland's songs were clearly the product of a country not writhing under the cosh of war. Perhaps that's why her segment burned brightest, that and the knock 'em dead presence of Russian guest Irina Kolesnikova, casting her pearls before swine.
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