Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, choreographed by Daniel de Andrade, is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But it’s a misguided, ill-judged piece of work that shades into risible vulgarity.
It is, of course, based on John Boyne’s well-known 2006 novel, which in turn was given the Miramax treatment in 2008. It’s the story of nine-year-old Bruno, who moves from Berlin to the outskirts of Auschwitz when his father is made camp commandant. Though his 12-year-old sister Gretel is a model Aryan mädchen who laps up the Nazi ideology she’s taught, Bruno has absolutely no inkling of any anti-Jewish sentiment among his milieu, no idea what Auschwitz is or what goes on there. (Neither does Bruno’s mother, for that matter.) Wandering around unaccompanied by the camp’s barbed wire fence, he meets Shmuel, an inmate the same age as himself, clad in a striped uniform that Bruno enviously assumes to be comfy loungewear. A friendship develops between the two boys. Nazi guards are apparently a non-issue here, and the children chat through the wire extensively, before Bruno decides to join his pal on the inside by burrowing underneath the divide. The inevitable happens.
Much has already been made of the fundamental historical inaccuracies on which the plot hinges, including the fact that there wouldn’t have been any nine-year-olds at Auschwitz because children were gassed on arrival. Some might see Boyne’s narrative as a profanity, others as merely an engaging introduction to the Nazi genocide for the immature – presumably the author himself thought he’d hit upon a touching metaphor. But there are so many vexed questions here. Holocaust fictions are a subject around which myriad issues swirl: the value of fiction versus testimony, the ethnic credentials of the author, suspicions about appropriation, the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and the dubious aesthetic pleasures we might derive from immersing ourselves imaginatively in a subject that some consider to be basically unknowable. At the centre of it all is Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” From this, we can theorise fervently, back and forth, about the ways in which art can frame the Holocaust, our responses to it and the value such works might have.
Here’s a disclaimer: my grandfather escaped the Nazis in Prussia; some of the family died in Auschwitz. The Holocaust is a thing I grew up trying to understand. We had VHS tapes of Shoah in the living room and I used to look at my grandpa’s passport, which had a star of David stamped on it, and ‘Israel’ added to his name (a good solid German name, as it happens: Rolf). What with all this conscious and unconscious baggage, it’s fair to say that I came into the auditorium with my hackles slightly raised, knowing what I did about the source material and its shortfalls. How would de Andrade’s ballet negotiate this tricky territory, especially as ballet, being a wordless art, often struggles with specificity and the demands of narrative? Unfortunately, there’s little trace of complexity or nuance here, added to which is the oft-uncomfortable spectacle of grown men pretending to be children (in the programme notes, artistic director David Nixon says that the story provided an opportunity for the company’s smaller men, who wouldn’t get to shine in the traditional princely principal roles, to take centre stage). Not that these grown men, and women too, aren’t wonderful dancers. Northern Ballet’s ranks are filled with beautifully accomplished technicians, some of whom are fine actors too, but what they’ve been asked to perform becomes questionable.
So, Matthew Koon’s innocent Bruno covers the Richmond stage with spurts of energetic leaping, neat pirouettes and buoyantly high arabesques, while Shmuel (Filippo Di Vilio, sporting white face make-up for an appropriately deathly pallor) slumps behind him. When he’s not ridden with hunger pains, he does kittenish tumbles and inquisitive extensions from behind the barbed wire, before scampering off with a wheelbarrow.
In a pre-Auschwitz scene, well-dressed Berlin Jews with yellow stars on their coats perform busy steps on pointe. Later, stripe-clad and imprisoned, they’re united in a hunched dance of hunger and abjection, subject to hammy stage punches from a bunch of rigidly goose-stepping, thigh-stroking Nazis. It’s extremely crass, but not a patch on the figure of the ‘Fury’ (Mlindi Kulashe), a preposterous embodiment of Hitler who looks like he’s stepped out of some kind of Stars Wars sex fantasy, complete with gas mask, black hood, glistening pleather pants and flickering talons. Presumably, this fantasy fascist goblin is supposed to represent the innocent child’s conception of the Fuhrer, but the whole thing doesn’t really bear much scrutiny.
Fortunately, Gary Yershon’s score steers clear of plaintive Klezmer tunes, and veers instead into strident discord. There are wavering piccolo themes, rumblings from the piano and passages for the strings that sound scrabbly and exposed. It’s not particularly danceable, nor pleasant to listen to – though this comes across as a more astute, confounding response to the subject matter than any of the choreography.
It’s all frustrating to watch, because dance can engage intelligently and movingly with political realities, as evidenced by the recent Rambert revival of Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, which memorialises those ‘disappeared’ during the Pinochet regime through magic realism and shapely skeins of folk-inspired movement. This, on the other hand, really is ballet at its worst – prettifying, sentimental and foolish. At this level – and Northern Ballet really are a fantastic company capable of great narrative – it’s not enough to be just well-intentioned.
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