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Discomforting Grasp of Holocaust Horrors: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

7 June 2017

 

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

by Daniel de Andrade

Northern Ballet at Richmond Theatre, 6th and 7th June

Review by Suzanne Louise Frost

Let me just start of by saying: I am very fond of David Nixon, the artistic director of Northern Ballet.  When I was six years old, I made my very first steps on a professional stage as a gnome in Cinderella at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and David Nixon was the prince.  He was our star male dancer of that decade in Berlin and I love the path his career has taken now, leading one of the most innovative companies in the UK, and one that has narrative ballet at the core of its philosophy.  So I was very interested in seeing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  It is my firm believe that with good choreographers and great dancers there is no story that ballet couldn’t tell and no subject matter too big for this wordless art.  But just because you can – does it mean you should?

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a popular novel by Irish author John Boyne, later adapted into a successful Miramax film directed by Mark Herman.  It explores the horrors of the Holocaust through a child’s perspective: nine-year-old German boy Bruno, son of a high ranking German commander, forming a friendship with an interned Jewish boy named Shmuel through the fence of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.  In the UK, Matthew Bourne has become probably the most popular choreographer by successfully adapting films for the stage (such as Edward Scissorhands and most recently The Red Shoes) and inventing a very cinematic style of staging that makes for great story telling.  But why David Nixon thought this film, of everything out there, would make a great ballet is a little bit bewildering.  Unfortunately, it is very hard to overcome the whiff of bad taste around dancing Nazis.  As a German, as a Berliner, from a city where every street corner bears some kind of memorial to our tremendous collective guilt, where every few steps you can trip over a “Stoplerstein” with the name of a Holocaust victim, seeing the infamous “Arbeit macht frei” sign from the gate of Auschwitz as a prop is a bit challenging.  I am not saying that ballet can’t tackle serious subjects.  Crystal Pite just had tremendous success with Flight Pattern, a phenomenally moving and harrowing ballet about the current refugee crisis.  She does have a much more abstract approach though.  I wonder if goose-stepping corps de ballet dancers should maybe best be left to the realm of The Producers -satire.

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My mood changed towards the end of Act I, when the two boys finally meet in a very poetic scene through that transparent yet unbridgeable barbed wire fence, beautifully set off by very reduced, minimal stage design and lighting.  The second act is altogether more dramatic with the action moving along at a fast pace: Bruno brings a secret stash of food to his new friend and, in an attempt to overcome the wall separating them, puts on one of the striped “pyjamas” (his naïve perception of the Auschwitz inmates’ uniform).  The masquerade has fateful consequences…

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The choreography, by long term Northern Ballet collaborator Daniel de Andrade is innovative and daring throughout with very interesting and unusual lifts, turns, slides and floor work.  The childlike innocence of Bruno is characterized by playful cartwheels, rolls and euphoric jumps and Matthew Koon gives a flawless performance.  The technical standard of the entire company is excellent and there are emotional moments, most notably from Hannah Bateman as a torn mother starting to grasp the horrors of her husband’s doing.  Victoria Sibson as the grandmother shows humanity, caring for a hungry inmate serving at the dinner table and furiously condemning the violence the Nazi officers show towards him.  But I felt that the characters are oversimplified and only Filippo di Vilio as Shmuel – riveted by hunger, fear is his eyes yet still full of childlike curiosity – manages to be more than one-dimensional.

I am aware the child’s perspective is the point of this particular story but is it the best way of tackling something as immense as the Holocaust?  Is it a good idea displaying the “spirit of Adolf Hitler” as some sort of leather-clad dementor with a gas mask?  In Boyne’s novel, Bruno mishears “Führer” as “fury”, therefore imagining him as a kind of evil spirit.  I have a real issue with this.  With all due respect, Auschwitz is in Poland and these kind of word games make no sense neither in German nor in the Polish language.  I know this problem stems from the source material but it is also lazy research, when an entire character results from a clunky translation mistake.  A dramaturge could have helped here.

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In the programme, Nixon states his wish to create a show for the very talented small male dancers in his company and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas certainly works in that sense.  The pas de deux between the two boys explore male friendship without any hint at the homoerotic, which is refreshing in a ballet context.  But Nixon also mentions that he first thought about adapting Anne Frank’s diary and I almost wish they had gone with that.  Anne Frank tells a coming of age story exploring emotions of fear, claustrophobia, sexual awakening and looming danger via the backdrop of the Holocaust.  It would have avoided choreographing an actual going-into-the-gas-chamber dance sequence.

I wonder if my reaction is a bit too politically correct.  At no point is this ballet actually offensive.  But maybe a little ill-advised? Here is a company with a passion for storytelling, excellent dancers, skilful choreographers and the guts to make brave decisions.  I wish I could have liked it more.

Suzanne Louise Frost

June 2017

Photographs courtesy of Northern Ballet © Emma Kauldhar

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One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    An excellent review by Suzanne, learned so much about this ballet from her review. Anne

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