Essays: Dance of gold |
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Dance of gold

CHOPIN loved his country but resisted all appeals to go home, on the principle that whereas in Paris art was eternal, political turmoil in Poland was merely endless.

Perhaps the only appropriate response to the week’s events, for those of us who could do absolutely nothing about them, would have been to put on an old record of Rubinstein playing Chopin’s second piano sonata and slowly consume a bottle of whatever they used to drink in Poland when they could still get it. But the television set did its best to remind us that there are other forces at work in the world besides power and despair.

It was a nice coincidence that in Jack Gold’s A Lot of Happiness (Granada), a brilliantly directed documentary showing the choreographer Kenneth MacMillan conjuring sculptural beauty out of a couple of human beings in long socks, the aforesaid Chopin had a leading role. To some piercingly lovely fragments from the third piano sonata, MacMillan, himself shambling around in a pair of baggy pants, pushed Vladimir Klos into various positions so that Birgit Keil could wind around him in several directions at once, with results that looked like a warmer version of that statue in which Giambologna successfully showed how many Sabine women a Roman could rape at the one time without moving his feet.

Drawing on an apparently fathomless supply of ideas, MacMillan told the dancers what to do. Sometimes he told them to show him what they felt like doing next, whereupon he either kept the notion if it fitted or thought of something else. Gold’s main camera fluently filmed all this happening. A second camera filmed the first camera. When MacMillan took the completed short ballet from the rehearsal room into the television studio, the film camera was there again to show what happened.

In any other director’s hands this might have been an emptily intricate approach, but Gold’s coherent mind had obviously made sense of it in advance. In addition, the editing could not have been more subtle or sensitive. The completed job was a fully adequate television tribute to that most organic of artistic events, the MacMillan pas de deux. In fact if MacMillan’s dance numbers got any more organic you would have to ring the police. ‘I’m trying to get a bit sexy now,’ he confided, tying Vladimir and Birgit into a reef-knot.

Further down the ladder of ambition and higher up the scale of decibels, the World Freestyle Dancin’ Championships (Thames) had a lot to offer this year apart from the usual migraine. On a set like a huge pin-ball machine the solo dancers separately pursued their doomed but delightful aim of getting it all together while shaking themselves to pieces. There was the sinisterly named Klaus Praetorius from Germany. Spyros Chrysos from Greece wore a Snappies Clingfilm playsuit that threatened to produce a chrysos all by itself.

All favoured the flat-foot spin, but there were variations in the amount of contortion gone in for, with some dancers just vibrating on the spot like a blender and others, notably Michelle Thomas from South Africa, uncorking prodigies of corporeal plasticity. Michelle could dive backwards and come up smiling before her feet left the ground.

Michelle won the singles, but even she was nothing compared with the winners of this year’s big innovation, the doubles. A pair of Italians called Luca and Paola did an adagio number that would have left even Kenneth MacMillan worrying about their physical safety. Paola spun around Luca’s neck like a propellor before zooming through one of his armpits and reappearing under his crotch on the way down to his ankle. This would have looked difficult even if Luca had not currently been imitating a man trying to remove a pair of trousers full of ants while putting out a fire in his hair. Then a pair of Americans came on and made everything you had seen before look static. The set pulsed, the cameras zoomed, tilted and raced sideways, and everybody had a good time.

One of the many nice things about A Midsummer Night’s Dream (BBC2) was that a good time was had by all. Contrary to general belief, Australian media folk spend as little time as possible rolling logs for one another, so it is with some reluctance that I call my compatriot Elijah Moshinsky an outstandingly stylish director of drama. Having persuaded the Beeb to let him build a pond in the middle of a studio, he staged half the action around it and in it, with no more than two or three other sets accounting for everything else.

But as so often happens when television directors shoot tight in a carefully dressed small space, the general effect was of a richly populated frame. Trevor Nunn pioneered the technique with his ‘Antony and Cleopatra’. Moshinsky took it a step further, keeping his carefully angled cameras static as often as possible, so that the occasional move startled. The whole scene in which the rude mechanicals planned their one and only theatrical appearance, for example, was done with one low camera angled upwards to show them all sitting at a tavern table. But the camera script would not have meant much without Moshinsky’s imaginative handling of actors, which in this particular scene included the coup of getting Peter Quince to talk and behave like the retiring Director-General of the BBC.

As Theseus, Nigel Davenport spoke with the noble relish befitting a part which almost as much as that of Hamlet seems to give you the sound of the author’s voice. Meanwhile, back in the forest, Puck looked like Pete Townshend of the Who made up as Dracula and behaved like Johnny Rotten. The fairies were clearly out of hand, mainly because of Oberon’s sticky involvement with Titania. As Oberon, Peter McEnery sported an Alice Cooper hairstyle and did a lot of sly doting on the recumbent Titania, played by Helen Mirren at her most languorously plush.

Powered by Titania’s slumbrous fertility, the whole area burst into flower. The part of Helena was taken by Cherith Mellor, who equipped herself with a pair of Cliff Michelmore glasses and did some very funny little moves. She said ‘Oh, excellent!’ after falling in the pond, which was a nice twist of the words. The design, by David Myerscough-Jones, drew on the whole romantic visual tradition all the way back to Mantegna, and with the possible exception of a moon out of Maxfield Parrish it worked a treat.

On Question Time (BBC1) the word ‘subsidisation’, meaning subsidy, was used by Sir Robin Day and immediately echoed by other members of the panel, except for Lady Antonia Pinter, who talked more sense than the other three panellists put together. They were Harold Lever, Edward du Cann (called Mr Buchanan by a member of the audience, which is apparently recruited right off the street) and Bernard Levin. Formidable men all, but the lady had the gift of common sense. Poland was the main subject. Lady Antonia movingly stated the only possible sane view, which was that the events were horrible and all the more horrible for being inevitable — tragic, in fact.

The Observer, 20th December 1981
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]