Of the many forms of artistic expression that humanity has contrived for purposes of aesthetic fulfilment and popular entertainment, ballet is the one that leaves me coldest.
I can just about tolerate, in a maudlin Merry Christmas sort of way, a very traditional comic piece like The Nutcracker – or maybe I can just tolerate The Nutcracker. And even then it’s the music I enjoy, not the prancing. Just as the tone-deaf Captain Hornblower would rather be on deck receiving a full broadside from a French frigate than be forced to sit through a musical concert (to him all music is a mysterious, meaningless cacophony of scraping and yelling); and just as Britterina would rather undergo root canal work than watch a cricket match on television; so it is with ballet and me: I gaze on, nonplussed and frustrated, at professional dancers going about their business, helplessly searching for some kind of cultural connection, or at least basic amusement.
Ballet criticism, however, is another matter. The writings of Clement Crisp – one of the most acerbic and pithy critics of the London theatre scene – are well worth reading. In a review of the show “Bussell and Zelensky” in today’s Financial Times, he neatly encapsulates everything I most fear and loathe about my artistic nemesis:
Zelensky then appears in 18 minutes of Russian angst (even more fraught than the usual brand) made by Alla Sigalova and “inspired” by a poem by Osip Mandelstam about “a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself”.
Black curtains are lowered behind him, he flails about as a Handel concerto grosso wends its way, and nothing happens at all, save the thought that differences in our views about what is “choreography” and what is dreary posturing are as vast as the distance between London and Novosibirsk, where Zelensky now directs the ballet troupe.
After a gaping interval, three couples from his Siberian troupe appear in “Whispers in the Dark”, one of those murky exercises in which the performers romp in all-too-familiar permutations over a stage made less than interesting by shafts of light and dry ice. A score by Philip Glass. Exquisitely predictable activity from girls in flat shoes and horrid little black frocks (which make them look, shall we say, stalwart, as does the choreography) and men in black leotards and bare chests.
The Nutcracker at Christmas is one thing. But in my vision of Hell, a man in a leotard endlessly dances a Russian poem about a man who is trying to learn infinity’s rules and understand himself, on a stage made less interesting by shafts of light and dry ice.