Ballet News Previews | The Southbank Show – The Male Dancer
Billed as “an exploration of the role of the male dancer, developed within classical ballet over the last century,” the welcome return of The South Bank Show puts the spotlight on three of the best male dancers who have made the biggest impact on ballet – Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carlos Acosta. Nureyev studied at the Leningrad Choreographic School, and became a soloist with the Kirov Ballet. While touring with the Ballet in 1961, he obtained political asylum in Paris. Nureyev’s virtuosity and expressiveness made him one of the greatest male dancers of the 1960’s, in both classical and modern ballets. He became ballet director of the Paris Opera in 1983. Mikhail Baryshnikov began dancing with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. On June 29, 1974, while on tour in Canada with the Bolshoi, he defected, asking for political asylum in Toronto. He joined the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and then went on to the United States. After freelancing with many companies, he joined New York City Ballet as a principal, followed by American Ballet Theatre, where he later became artistic director. Carlos Acosta was born in Havana, Cuba, the eleventh child of a truck driver. As an escape from poverty his father sent him to a state-run ballet school which he initially hated, but once he’d seen other male dancers in performance, he was hooked. He danced at Houston Ballet, English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet, where he is currently Principal Guest Artist.
The programme aims to highlight the strengths of male dancers and uses rarely seen archive footage of the dancers in performance and current & previous South Bank interviews to link their stories together. Looking to the future, producer Jess Adams focuses on Ed Watson from The Royal Ballet and Wayne McGregor, highlighting a more contemporary base. The Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo (soon to be Artistic Director of English National Ballet) offers well-chosen nuggets to enhance our knowledge of these dancers.
Introduced by Melvyn Bragg, the programme launches with Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Acosta one after the other dancing solos from Le Corsaire, and serves to link all three as dancers who, though fueled by their talent, had to leave their own country to find the opportunities to grow as artists. Acosta was asked to dance Le Corsaire during the gala to re-open the Royal Opera House after its redevelopment, and he describes it as one of the best moments of his career, as he danced with an image of Nureyev behind him, and says it was “a moment in history.” This is swiftly followed by Nureyev dancing Swan Lake in 1966 and Baryshnikov in Configurations in 1983.
Tamara Rojo says “male dancers catch the attention of the public because they are usually outrageous. As they should be.” Footage of Nureyev follows, this time from Sleeping Beauty in 1961, in black and white, and in 1977.
Carlos Acosta says that he misses the greater level of human contact and the quality of a slower pace of life in his homeland of Cuba. Rare footage of Nureyev strolling the land in Positano, Italy shows him talking about his defection from Russia in 1961. Baryshnikov defected when he was 26, 13 years after Nureyev, because he wanted to meet choreographers and wanted to be an “instrument in their hands.” He went on to work with an extraordinary number of choreographers in New York, where he settled because of the opportunities on offer, over a relatively short period of time. We see footage of Baryshnikov in Twyla Tharp’s Push comes to shove in 1996 and he talks openly about his early training with Alexander Pushkin. He and Nureyev shared the same teacher and Baryshnikov says that he was not initially impressed by Nureyev. He says that Nureyev came to class unprepared and was a sloppy dancer lacking the basic skills, but he was eager, confident and arrogant. Nureyev dances with Margot Fonteyn in Romeo & Juliet in the next footage clip (undated at the time of review), and Fonteyn, during an interview with The South Bank Show in 1991 says of him, “he brought a great change.” At that time, the ballerina roles were the most significant ones, with the Prince and other male roles seen as subsidiary. “Rudolf didn’t like that. He thought that the Prince was as important as the ballerina and he saw to it that he was.” You can imagine!
Les Sylphide, danced by Nureyev in 1963 highlights his elegance as much as his virtuosity.
Acosta is asked what he thinks makes a truly great male dancer, “I think there are many factors but definitely you need to connect with your audience. You have to have something distinctive that sets you apart. They (Nureyev and Baryshnikov) had it.”
Kenneth MacMillan, The Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer for many years was massively inspired by Nureyev’s arrival in Europe and began choreographing for male dancers – something of a departure from the norm at the time. His ballet Mayerling – a walk on the dark side of life – was created on David Wall, who was interviewed in 1991 and said of the role, “I found myself doing things I’d never done before as a person, let alone a dancer.” MacMillan said at the time, “male dancing has come to the fore. Now in England we have some superb male dancers and I want to do a ballet for a man.” Footage of Wall in Mayerling (undated at the time of review) follows. Rojo sees similarities in Mayerling with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while Ed Watson says “MacMillan’s work is the first of its kind in terms of what is expected of a male dancer. The partnering is unbelievably complicated. Nothing in it is too far away from really classical technique. You have to have all of that together but at the same time it’s stretched and twisted to really tell a story through dance. It’s a massive physical challenge.” Wall worked on the role with MacMillan for 10 months, something Acosta wishes he had been able to do with the choreographer. Rojo says “MacMillan’s pas de deux are unrivalled. There is no-one who manages to choreograph sex, really, in such an amazing way. He accepts that we have flaws and encourages them and then shows them as a positive. It’s about portraying the emotion through movement which is what dance should be about.” Acosta adds, “some people think that it’s not the greatest of MacMillan’s ballets but from the dancers point of view, it’s the world. It’s wonderful.” Film footage of Ed Watson and Iohna Loots in Mayerling echoes all these sentiments.
Watson dances the very modern Wayne McGregor’s Limen in the next film footage, and the programme begins to look to the future of male dance & dancers, and heads off in a contemporary direction. I’d like to have seen more than a fleeting glimpse into the Royal Ballet Upper School and the promising male dancers of the future, and to have focused on whether or not classical ballet will produce the next outstanding male dancers. Instead, we have Royal Ballet renegade Michael Clark who choreographs to punk music and Wayne McGregor rehearsing Watson in his own very distinctive style, which Watson describes as “it feels like he’s re-wired your circuit.” I can see this is a good thing for dancers who don’t fit the classical ballet mould – Watson himself admits that he has never been given some of the roles that he longed for when he was younger – the Prince in Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake or Nutcracker for example – but in works such as The Metamorphosis he has found his niche and no longer looks for those classical roles. He made it to Principal dancer anyway.
You really have to admire the curiosity of these male dancers, with their “can I do it?” tenacity. Footage of Baryshnikov in 1983 dancing Configurations follows, along with Acosta in Two. Baryshnikov, ever forthright, says that dancers are better today than they were; it’s the natural order of things. Rojo comments, “it it strange that most of these dancers were condemned to exile” and Nureyev’s commitment to dance excluded everything and everyone such that the price he paid for success was probably loneliness – something often echoed by Acosta. “Rudolf opened that door for us” says Baryshnikov, “that transparent soul. I am afraid to get bored with life or myself.” Acosta intends to head back to Cuba as his stage career closes, “to create bridges to the world.”
So where are the outrageous male dancers of tomorrow ? Sergei Polunin might have been one, but found that under the Royal Ballet brand his creativity was stifled and he had no desire for it. Vadim Muntagirov is fast proving himself to be an elegant, calm dancer, in demand as a guest around the world, and has forged a strong connection with his partner at English National Ballet, Daria Klimentová, but has still to create a connection with his audience. Carlos Acosta’s nephew Yonah arrived in England last year and has been working hard on his stagecraft (he already had the technical skills) but he too has yet to connect with audiences. The question remains unanswered.
The South Bank Show, Sunday 17th June 2012, 10pm, Sky Arts 1 HD and available live and on-demand via Sky Go