Last night's viewing - Imagine: A Beauty Is Born – Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, BBC1; Wartime Farm Christmas, BBC2
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Wednesday 19 December 2012
There are few choreographers who have dared to do what Matthew Bourne has done. Who could have envisaged an all-male corps de ballet in Swan Lake at a time when it caused no small measure of outrage?
And who would have dressed the dancers in the campy style of a catalogue underwear photo-shoot to enact a moment of testosterone-fuelled male bonding, as he did in one of his earliest shows? The stakes thus raised, we found Bourne setting out to give an edgy twist to the most classic of Tchaikovsky's ballets, The Sleeping Beauty. The question here, asked by Alan Yentob in this illuminating behind-the -scenes Imagine documentary, A Beauty Is Born – Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty, was whether a ballet this traditional – the pointe-work can be heard in the music – could bend to Bourne's über-contemporary will.
A tall order but not an insurmountable one for Bourne, who has already made two Tchaikovsky ballets his own (Swan Lake and The Nutcracker). Even at the drawing-board stage, his dancers congregated around him, Bourne sprinkled the central concept of The Sleeping Beauty with his own zeitgeisty magic dust: he would bring out the fairy-tale's gothic strands by giving it a True Blood twist, he said.
Yentob followed Bourne and his dance company through every stage of the creative process before the curtain swished open at Sadler's Wells Theatre. What we got was not the ballet itself but the work that went into it and fascinating insight into how Bourne achieves his great leaps of creative daring. He began by dismissing the original story of The Sleeping Beauty as a bit unconvincing – "the prince just kisses her and they end up marrying" – and setting out his stall for a ballet with vampiric elements. Then, early improvisation by dancers emoting scenes and the endless slog of rehearsal and refinement – one scene that lasts 15 seconds takes 45 minutes for the dancers to memorise.
Bourne recollected his early passion for performance, not ballet as much as musical theatre and the films of Fred Astaire – influences that remain in his work today. He also spoke of his foremost desire to tell a story and the likes of Cameron Mackintosh raved about him but stopped shy of eulogy: "Telling stories is more important than the steps he employs."
His rigorous method and the large imagination aside, Bourne came across as a thoroughly nice man with none of the hauteur that can come with the territory. There was a warm, down-to-earth solidity in his exchanges with Yentob. The documentary closed as the show began its run at Sadler's Wells and even the newly initiated must have been itching to see it by then.
Wartime Farm Christmas saw the return of this successful series that revolves around "re-enactment" as a way of making history more telegenic. So we saw historian Ruth Goodman and archaeologist Peter Ginn step back in time in full regalia – pinafore for her, tweeds for him – to Manor Farm in Hampshire. It was Christmas 1944, and Britain had already endured five previous wartime yuletides. Some of the re-enactment looked laboured but gained momentum as time went on with Goodman making a Christmas meal at the most austere stage of rationing (carrot cakes, candied carrots, boiled carrots etc), and chidren's toys out of household detritus while Ginn made beer out of potatoes. Some of 1944's "make do and mend" spirit might serve well in our own cash-strapped times.
Despite the sometimes cheesy "dress-up" side to this series, there were some truly fascinating glimpses of social history – the government's "pie scheme" to keep rural workers well fed, the women railways workers who lost the odd finger from all the heavy lifting and, not least, the German PoWs singing carols in German to wartime Brits at a local church.
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