Music: Gary Yershon
Choreographer/Director: Daniel de Andrade
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
For many years after the Second World War ended very few people knew much about the atrocities that had occurred in the concentration (death) camps, and just how much the unfortunate Jewish race had suffered. As time went on however horrific memories were shared by survivors, and historians uncovered the unpalatable truths. Nowadays there are artistic works in many genres depicting the horrors inflicted by so-called human beings on others, just because they had the power at the time. It’s easy to pick up any book or film and learn about this section of modern history – and rightly so – but this is the first time that ballet has played a part.
The novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas written by John Boyne was chosen by choreographer Daniel de Andrade because he felt that its fast paced, fable-like story and heart-wrenching events would translate smoothly into a ballet. The story is simple; an ordinary boy Bruno lives within a loving family of the elder sister, mum, and dad who is a German army officer.
Initially lonely as his sister fraternises with the new young soldiers in close proximity, Bruno takes to wandering outside the garden – despite its exciting tyre swing. He soon discovers the awful high barbed-wire fence of the camp, and by chance meets one of its prisoners – Shmuel, a young boy of his age, who wears not usual everyday shorts but ‘striped pyjamas’. From that moment, whenever Bruno isn’t enduring the indoctrinating lessons forced upon him by his Hitler-like tutor Herr Liszt, he is with his new friend, secretly taking food for the hungry boy and trying to engage the exhausted chap in ball games. Their friendship as told in dance is truly uplifting, but at the same time, there is the underlying feeling that it cannot go on. And end it does, in the cruellest way imaginable.
Matthew Koon and Filippo Di Vilio who dance the characters of the boys Bruno and Schmuel respectively, perfectly capture the young boys in their situations. Bruno is fast and enthusiastic, dancing to bright music, keen to play, and fool about with the family’s maid and his priggish sister, Gretel. Schmuel, however, moves in a more lethargic way, to simple modal music with a base note, rather like a version of much folk music. Gretel (Antoinette Brooks-Daw) thinks herself grown up; flirts coquettishly with a young German officer (Sean Bates), treats the maid (Mariana Rodriguez) as an inferior, and relishes her lessons glorifying the new Fuhrer and his works. Javier Torres and Hannah Bateman capture perfectly the love between Bruno and Gretel’s parents as they dance the developing roles. Dad is a mixture of tough, cruel army officer and loving parent always with time for the kids; and Mum is kind to everyone, finding it hard to accept what is unfolding around her. The strains of the German army threaten to distance them from one another at some points, but they are tragically drawn back together. The soldiers are very well-depicted once it becomes possible to see them as marching rather than executing ballet moves – it has to be said that at first, it is difficult to take them seriously, the spectre of a Monty Python sketch rises to mind. Interspersed among the characters, and symbolically drawing the whole work together, is the darkly ominous Fury (Mlindi Kulashe, a brilliant dancer) representing death walking among them.
As always with Northern Ballet, the sets are minimal and striking – the huge stark barbed wire fence could have been lifted straight out of Birkenhau – and the costumes are wonderful. Everyday clothing in ballet, especially wartime and military, seems a bit of an anathema, but every outfit works here.
Overall it is a very moving ballet, which actually manages to drive home the way in which war and suffering take away childhood forever. Initial doubts do make it seem a very unusual subject to tackle in dance, and in total honesty, one has to wonder if it is really morally fitting to do so. The emotions surrounding the harrowing experiences in the concentration camps seem too deep to tackle in this way. On the other hand, if it encourages more people to become aware of what was suffered maybe it has a place in the teaching of a new generation. The premiere was held this evening in Doncaster, but there’s every indication that it will travel far.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Emma Kauldhar