In Conversation With…Professor John Mercer on: Rock Hudson; the work of Mark Rappaport and François Reichenbach, currently available to see on the Henri platform of the Cinémathèque Françaisse; as well as on fragments of queer visual histories.
I had been so excited by what I thought was a discovery of two films by François Reichenbach — Last Spring and Nus masculins, both from 1954, — on the Henri platform of the Cinémathèque Française that I wanted to talk to someone about them. Along with the Reichenbach, Henri was also showing Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) so I thought John Mercer, with his work on Rock Hudson and his knowledge of histories of queer visual representation would be ideally placed to discuss the significance of all of these works, which if you listen to the above, will see that did indeed turn out to be the case, and for which I express my thanks.
Rappaport is of course now a famous filmmaker and celebrated as a pioneering video essayist. J. Hoberman wrote of Mike Rapapport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, quite briefly but beautifully I think, in an article for The Village Voice which you can see below:
I knew of Reichenbach as an award-winning documentarian, and I had seen L’Amérique insolite (1961), so I knew that his work had very considerably queer overtones. But I had never seen these two films and I was bowled over by them, seeing them as part of a matrix of confluences of queer mid-century visual imagery that connected Cocteau, Genet and Anger with Reichenbach and in turn connected Reichenbach with later filmmakers such as Derek Jarman and Isaac Julien. It turns out that Last Spring was not as little know as I initially thought, with Julianne Pidduck having written this below in the updated version of Richard Dyer’s Now You See It: Studies in Lesbian and Gay Film, crediting Thomas Waugh with ‘discovering’ Last Spring at the Kinsey Institute:
and Waugh himself writing on the film in his Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from their Beginnings to Stonewall:
I made two trailers to help publicise the Cinémathèque screenings of the films, which I include here because I hope they evoke their flavour; and which will at least allow you to look at some of the imagery contained in them. You can see them below:
Nus masculins( 1954):
and Late Spring (1954):
I also made an ad for the podcast at the very top with John Mercer, which will also hopefully evoke some of the flavour of Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies:
Both Rappaport’s work and particularly Reichenbach’s deserve to be better known,
A discussion of Chahine’s autobiographical film, the first of what would be called the Alexandria Trilogy — Alexandria, Why?/ Iskandariyya….leh? (1979), An Egyptian Story/ Haddouta Misriyya, 1982), Alexandria, Again and Forever/ Iskandariyya, kaman wa kaman, 1989 — and would then expand to include a fourth film, Alexandria….New York, 2004.
I made a trailer for the film and the podcast that should give you a flavour of what it’s about if you haven’t already seen it:
Our special guest star is Dr. Andrew Moor from Manchester Metropolitan University who specialises in, amongst other things, LGBTQ cinema and whose enthusiasm for Chahine films at last year’s Ritrovato festival in Bologna is what introduced many of us to these great works.
Richard Dyer would use Alexandria, Why? to illustrate a lecture on ‘A History of Gay Cinema in Ten Films’, and it could just as profitably be deployed in relation to Queer cinema. The podcast discusses the very interesting ways the film depicts all kinds of intersectionality in a bildungsroman about a young man who wants a career in the arts just as British Occupying Forces are forced to contend with the Germans arriving in El Alemein. We discuss the way the film mixes genres (the musical, the melodrama, the social problem film). It’s a rare director that elicits commentary in relation to a mix including Ken Loach, Shakespeare, Vincente Minnelli and Shakespeare. The film is also an important contribution to a discussion of colonialism from the perspective of the colonised.
There´s a very interesting review of the film by Jesse Cataldo here:
Richard Layne was thrilled to discover 70s British heart-throb Gerry Sundquist as one of the stars of the film and quickly dug up one of his works, as you can see above. Richard also provided more information for those who want to follow up on that aspect here below:
Review of “Soldier and Me” (his first lead role) which features the best summary I’ve seen of his career and what went wrong
Here are some clips referenced in the podcast that you might find interesting:
a tiny excerpt that is from a film that Chahine himself made as a student:
The very moving search fro the British Soldier:
….and the witty conclusion with the arrival in New York:
…and here is the glorious opening scene , which introduces all of the film’s main themes: Hitler promising to get to Alexandria cut to Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty, unruly occupying forces and anti-colonial struggles, the reality of occupation next to the fantasy of Georges Guétary singing ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’ in Minnelli’s An American in Paris, anachronistically deployed here as the film starts in 1942 and the film would not be released until 1951; a young lad and his mates living their youth in a beautiful port city under difficult circumstances, a city made up of diverse peoples, represented inclusively and dramatised with feeling and depth. It’s a beautiful film.
Here is a more extended version of the film Chahine made at school:
There is a very interesting article here, perhaps romanticising, on how Chahine was able to finish his stint in America as a student due to a government error:
The podcast barely scratches the surface but will, we hope, enhance viewers’ appreciation and interestingly links it with his oeuvre to this point.
A conversation with Richard Dyer to mark the 50th anniversary of his move to Birmingham, where he lived for most of his adult life and where he produced much of his celebrated work. Many thanks to Ian Francis and Flatpack for their foresight in marking the occasion. I too had the foresight to ask whether the conversation could be recorded so that those of you who could not attend the event might nonetheless be able to listen in. However, I then lacked the wit to press the record button on time, so the first five minutes or so of the conversation are missing. In the end you did have to be there I guess, although it´s not a great loss: what´s missing is mainly my fulsome introduction, which he has no need of, and which merely expressed what everyone else feels about him and his work. The conversation is all too brief but touches on his activism at the GLF, the Arts Lab in Birmingham, his arrival the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies, his early work on Gays and Film with Jack Babuscio, Stars and White, with some commentary on entertainment, musicals, ‘In Defence of Disco’, filmgoing in Birmingham in the 70s and an introduction to Mai Zetterling´s Loving Couples (Sweden 1964)
I didn’t intend to write on the ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ one-day symposium held at King’s College London on the 6thof July 2018, so this will probably be a partial account; my notes were taken in the service of my own thinking rather than with the aim of writing for others and is thus probably partial and incomplete. But it was such a great event –informed, instructive; a scholarly context taking into account the intellectual debates of the day on the subject at hand with the aim of creating dialogue through which to increase our knowledge, instruct us all, and point to areas where further research may be profitably undertaken – that I felt I needed to at least jot down some developments in my own thinking that resulted from the day.
The idea was structured as a combination of workshops and sets of curated and complimentary papers on particular areas. The day before the event two films were screened: John M. Stahl’s Back Street from 1932, a celebrated ‘Pre-Code’ film; and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, famous for making comedy of a young girl (Betty Hutton) getting drunk, getting pregnant, and not being able to remember who she slept with, thus getting around many of the taboos the code prohibited. Participants were asked to view the two films with the aim of contributing to the two workshops the following day, in which the two films would be the focus of case studies on the influence and deployment of the Production Code. So contrary to the usual assumption underpinning the standard academic conference, which is to showcase the state of one’s own research, this event was more along the lines of, ‘lets set some guidelines for discussions, have major figures in the field (Lea Jacobs, Doug Pye, Ed Gallafent) contextualise and set some parameters for it, let’s present some leading research, and let’s all collectively contribute to the discussion and see where it takes us to by the end of the day’. The developmental and pedagogic element was built into the structure of the day, with great success.
Tom Brown introduced the event with an account of what had led him and John Gibbs to pursue the subject. The goals of the day were contextualised within the landmark work in the area by Richard Maltby (“’Baby Face’ or How Joe Breen Made Barbara Stanwyck Atone for the Wall Street Crash’ in Screen). Thomas Doherty (Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-34); Hollywood Censors: Joseph I Breen and the Production Code Administration), Leonard Leff (The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code); and Lea Jacobs (The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942).
Brown also praised the new work on historiography such as The New Film History: Source, Methods, Approaches (James Chapman, Mark Glancy, and Sue Harper eds.) and how recent developments in the field on the uses of archival materials has transformed the study of film. However, great as this all is, Brown also drew on Dyer’s question of ‘Where is the ‘film’ in Film Studies’ to highlight how all this new work on film risked side-lining the films themselves. He mentioned recent accounts of Hollywood cinema that argue that the introduction of the Production Code led to no discernible difference in film style, and drew on Stanley Cavell’s discussion of the Jericho scene in It Happened One Nightin Pursuits of Happiness to argue differently. So the aim of the day was really to explore this difference that started off as intuited and felt and to bring considerations of film style back into a productive interplay with the fruits born from historiographical and archival work.
The day started off with Adam Vaughan presenting his paper ‘Queering the Code’ where he examined the influence of the Code on the work of queer filmmakers and performers in 1930s Hollywood. His case studies were two films by George Cukor, Our Betters(1933) and Sylvia Scarlett(1935) and he argued that the enforcement of the Code changed representation from the explicit to the allusive and connotative. Vaughan’s demonstration of the censors’ objections to the heavy make-up on one of the queer characters in Our Betters was very illuminating. Olympia Kiriakou also drew on archival sources to demonstrate how MGM had to negotiate the presentation of adultery in MGM’s The Women (, also directed by Cukor) focussing on the scene where Mary (Norma Shearer) discusses her husband’s infidelity with her mother. The paper traced the development of the scene from the original theatrical script through the cinematic adaptation, via all the discussion with Joseph Breen, and, finally, to the finished version of the film that we get to see today. One of the interesting things that came out of the workshop was that rather than debate which is the original version, the director’s cut, that which most people saw, etc., what’s important is to at least initially keep in play the whole process in its entirety, as that might result in different questions; or, the possibility that a look at the process in its entirety might result in different, richer, answers to the same question.
This set of papers was followed by a workshop led by Lea Jacobs and Ed Gallafent on Back Street, part of the ‘Fallen Women’ cycle Jacobs writes so brilliantly on in her magisterial The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. The workshop began with a discussion of the film as an adaptation of the Fannie Hurst best-seller, pointing out how the novel was more explicit on the issue of class and race keeping the lovers apart than Stahl’s movie (the character of Walter Saxel played by John Boles in the film is Jewish in the novel). The discussion touched on the various film versions of the novel, not only Stahl’s but also the 1941 version directed by Robert Stevenson and starring Charles Boyer and Margaret Sullavan, as well as the 1961 version directed by David Miller starring Susan Hayward and John Gavin. Which scenes changed, how were they developed, and how were they visualised from the novel to the ‘Pre-Code’ version to the subsequent ones?
Ed Gallafent offered a lovely reading of the scene between Ray (Irene Dunne) and her sister (see clip below), highlighting the way it begins by Ray looking at herself confidently in the mirror before meeting Walter’s mother, deciding not to put her make-up on, moving her belongings from a black purse to a white purse in order to make a better impression. But the song she’s humming is ‘After the Ball’:
After the ball is over,
After the break of morn –
After the dancers’ leaving;
After the stars are gone;
Many a heart is aching,
If you could read them all;
Many the hopes that have vanished
After the ball.
Gallafent underlined the importance of that song in Dunne’s career (she performed it earlier on stage in Show Boat and would perform it later still in James Whale’s 1936 film version) and also highlighted the significance of several elements in the scene: the way the sister enters the room, locks the door, and leans against it barring the way, something of a trope in ‘women’s’ films throughout the whole ‘Classic’ period; the way the sister asks questions without ending them, ‘he’s got to stay here and….’; ‘If mama were to find out anything she’d…’.;the way that Ray earlier tosses a coin about whether Walter’s mother will like her but, because of the sister’s interruption, never gets to find out which side the coin faced, and how this all underlines the element of chance in the scene.
Lea Jacobs noted how what was unspoken but clearly understood is that Ray’s sister is pregnant. The discussion teased out how the film had at the beginning set up a tension around virtue with Ray’s step-mother protecting her biological daughter’s but questioning Ray’s; how this scene demonstrates how the tables have now turned; how later on in the film the sister herself, with the husband, home and children Ray made possible, will stand in judgment of her sister, forgetting what had happened before. The discussion also indicated how the tracking shot at the end of the next sequence, where we see the band packed-up and walking down the bandstand with their instruments, rhymes with the Ray’s humming of ‘After the Ball’; and how all of this underlines chance, the ‘might-have-been’, the ‘it could happen to anyone’ which the film will underscore in its sad, final flashback. It was a very illuminating, inclusive and generative workshop.
In the afternoon papers, Kathrina Glitre in her ‘Sacred Intimacies: Sexual ambiguity and performance in My Favourite Wife(1940)’ explored the issues around performance and suggested meaning, comparing the PCA’s recommendations to key moments in the finished film. ‘How exactly’, she asked, ‘does screwball performance style enable the kind of ambiguity necessary to render sexual content appropriately ‘innocent’? The paper demonstrated how memos to and from the Breen office often remarked on something ‘as agreed’ though never putting on paper what exactly was agreed upon. Glitre also showed how the PCA’s correspondence directly addressed questions of performativity.
In the same panel, Martha Shearer argued that the Busby Berkeley Warners musicals of the early 30s often appear in accounts of ‘pre-Code Hollywood’ usually contrasted with the Astaire and Rogers cycle, a contrast that seems dramatic. Shearer instead focuses on Warners’ own Dames(1934) to argue that the ‘the principal of deniability’ continues to operate but through a ‘more gradual, more complex and less melodramatic evolution of systems of convention in representation’. What Shearer brought out also is that many of these films were re-released so which ones were not allowed a re-release subsequent to the more stringent enforcement of the code, which ones were edited, and what was edited out and for which reasons, may also prove a useful way of illuminating the effects of the code on the style of later representations of that which was forbidden. Lastly, James McDowell offered a thought-provoking presentation on ‘Irony, Intention and the Production Code’ arguing for how the working through, against and in the shadow of, the Production Code, should lead us to re-think the question of intentionality in relation to film interpretation.
The afternoon workshop revolved around a discussion of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek led by Lea Jacobs, Kathrina Giltre and Douglas Pye. Lea Jacobs offered an absolutely brilliant reading of the scene where Betty Hutton as Trudy Kockenlocker goes to the dance, gets drunk (see clip below), and later gets married to God knows who and gets pregnant. As Kathrina Giltre demonstrated, none of it was allowed by Code. Jacobs not only showed how Sturges treated it as a game to get around the censors (you never see Trudy drinking anything other than what’s listed as lemonade, though her expression highlights its sourness due to sugar being conserved as part of the war effort, a ‘sourness’ that the audience understands as her drinking alcohol; later on in the country club, drinks are offered to each and everyone but Trudy’s out of sight, etc. etc.). However, what Jacobs so brilliantly underlined is that in all the games of not showing the drinking whilst communicating that Trudy’s getting drunk, what’s really being displaced is the sex; how because she dances with so many different men, some people have talked of her having multiple partners that night, or the even darker possibility that in spite of the sexual energy Hutton so convivially evokes, she might have been so drunk she was taken advantage of or worse.
Doug Pye, equally brilliantly, spoke of tone; and the discussion also highlighted how so much of the comedy edges on darkness. Pye offered a timeline on the film from the title, through the various scene drafts, the first day of shooting without completed script or PCA comments, Breen’s response, the granting of a seal approval, the Catholic Legion of Decency’s objections, the film’s release and comments on audience interpretation of the film. Immensely useful. Later in the workshop, the film’s particularly brilliant use of the long takes and how it focuses on the performance, and how the actors brilliantly evoke, and play for laughs that which cannot be said was highlighted. The use of Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff, intertextually referencing Sturges’ previous The Great McGinty (1940) as a way of providing a deux ex-machina that resolves every impediment to marriage whilst breaking all the laws was also part of the intriguing discussion in the workshop.
The ‘Hollywood and the Production Code: Criticism and History’ symposium was a brilliant event. It made use of recent developments in theory, history, and the Archive and brought them productively into play with criticism – raising fascinating questions about the effects of the Production Code process, with an underlining of process in its entirety — on film style in a way that put back the film into ‘Film Studies’ as the central object of study it deserves to be.
No dancer has had the effect on me that Sergei Polunin has. I’d come to Nureyev when he was too old and I too young. He was very beautiful still but already stodgy in movement. It’s his celebrity, his history, we applauded then rather than his performance. Even delving into old BBC films memorialising his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn disappointed: the films themselves are so static that they get in the way of fully appreciating him in his prime, though even in these awful stodges, where no thought has been given as to how to best present one form via another, his genius and techne shine through (though if these films made me a fan of anyone, it’s Fonteyn). However, Nureyev’s dancing is best appreciated elsewhere, and from way before my time, as in this old Soviet footage:
or in this American TV Special:
I adored Baryshnikov. Like so many others, I got to know him first through The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977) and then through the all too few films he graced (White Nights, Dancers). It was also a thrill to see him in those magnificent specials he did for American television in the 80s, first with Liza Minnelli in Baryshnikov on Broadway(1980) and laterBaryshnikov Dances Sinatra (1984). The thrill was fleeting in those pre-VHS days but it has lasted in memory, memories that can now be tested via the re-releases of those works on DVD.
Baryshnikov was the light to Nureyev’s feral broodyness, first a horny pixie, all grace and beauty in movement, one who seemed to radiate earthy joy in its most ethereal aspect, then later, whilst still technically virtuosic, becoming baser, rawer, a hint of cruelty coming out in the more macho dimensions of the dances. He was also quick to branch out into more diverse forms of dance, eager to absorb all of its idioms, from Twyla Tharpe to Jerome Robbins, from his work in the American Ballet Theatre to his later experiments with modern dance in his own White Oak Dance Company with Mark Morris.
The Rudolf Nureyev foundation was later to fund Polunin’s schooling at the Royal Ballet. And Julie Kavanagh has called Polunin ‘the purest virtuoso’ since Baryshnikov. Polunin demands to be compared with, not only the best, but the legendary ones of each generation. I first saw him by accident in a live transmission of The Royal Opera House’s Sleeping Beauty and was simply dazzled, first by his charisma, then by the way he seemed to attack each move fearlessly but end with enormous control whilst putting a final flourish on the movement. I haven’t seen anyone quite like him.
‘A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.
In a superb piece for The New York Times, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ the late, great, David Foster Wallace writes of athletes: ‘Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.’ It’s an idea also developed in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ in Consider the Lobster, where he writes of top flight athletes being beautiful and inspiring:
‘There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man….Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be what that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves’.
When we add beauty as goal to all that Foster Wallace describes, this sense of carving exemptions from physical laws, of profundity in motion, becomes intensified. ‘So we want to know them,’ adds Foster Wallace:
‘these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instincts, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it (pp. 142-143)
Dancer helps us get to know Polunin, whilst reminding us, through thrilling home and video footage, of why we want to get to know him in the first place. We begin with Polunin’s story. Born in Kherson in Souther Ukraine to working class parents, he first studied at the school of gymnastics, where he dreamed of winning a gold medal. But he also did a little bit of dancing in the afternoons and his mother thought he would have a better life exploring that route. So the whole family mobilised to make that dream come true: the father went to work to Portugal as a builder, the grandmother as carer for the elderly in Greece. Both sending home all they earned to pay for the rent and the school fees so he could study ballet in Kiev. But who’s dream was this? The child’s? The mother’s? The family’s? Beware of parents who constantly tell their children they sacrificed all for their future — a shift in perspective turns a sacrifice into an investment; the gilded future of their children into their own.
When Polunin was eleven, he auditioned at the Royal Ballet School, was accepted and quickly impressed. In 2007 he was named Young British Dancer of the year. He was the youngest dancer to be made a principal in the whole history of the Royal Ballet. They gave him practically every lead dance to play, six major new roles in 2011 alone, too many, like exploiting a young footballer’s virtuosity to the point where he risks potential injury and a curtailment of his career. Then in 2012, after his parents divorced and after breaking up with his girlfriend and getting into an argument in rehearsal with his his co-star, Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru, he left the Royal ballet for good. It was a scandal that made the front pages.
Soon, the tabloids were full of stories on the ‘bad boy of ballet,’ the significance of part-owning a tattoo-parlour in North London, and proof of those tweets about his drug-taking and clubbing. In the UK the ballet establishment wrung its hands, a talent wasted they thought. What the film shows us is more personal. He’d been over-worked and burned out. And what was the point of continuing? In his eyes, he’d done it all for his family who’d sacrificed so much for him. It’s not something he wanted for himself. And if his family had fallen apart in the process of collectively making possible that which was not his dream…well what was the point of it all?
The aftermath was not as well-covered by the press. I eagerly bought tickets for a ballet based on Midnight Express at the London Coliseum. Polunin cancelled but I soldiered on and fully understand why he pulled out. It was a complete disaster: sensationalist, crude, bombastic, salacious. He might have made it watchable. But not without embarrassment. What I had not noticed, partly because I did not then know of him, was that the strong, tall man, with his hand on the shoulder of the vulnerable Polunin in the poster (see image above) was Igor Zelenksy.
In Dancer, Polunin’s mother, Galina, describes him as the father Polunin always needed (and we also see how this view hurts Polunin’s handsome, gentle and self-sacrificing real father, Vladimir). Polunin followed Zelenksy to the Stanislavsky ballet. We see footage of him dancing there, and them dancing together in Spartacus. Dancer shows us how Polunin had to rebuild his career in Russia. He took part in a national ballet tv show, something comparable to The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent but with ballet dancing rather than singing as its focus. This way, Polunin once more became not only the leading dancer of his generation but once more a national celebrity, an international one. And once more the film shows us him running away to give it all up. This time to collaborate with former Royal Ballet classmate, Jade-Hali Cristofi in choreographing a ballet set to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, rather hackneyed both in sound and choreography but beautifully directed and danced, and which up to his point has racked up 19,331,185 views on you-tube. Extraordinary.
It’s clear from the film that this was at one point thought to be the ending of the film. It’s all structured to lead to this. But then, once, more Polunin returns to ballet, thankfully for us and for the film.
Dancer is fascinating in at least two ways; one, because through all the fantastic early footage it demonstrates the genius — there’s no other word for it — of its subject; two, because it also shows us all the work, dedication and sacrifice needed to develop that talent into genius. In the process of transforming raw talent into these otherworldly beings Foster Wallace describes, with that grace, power and control that ‘carve out exemptions from physical laws’, the single-minded focus extracts a price, social and psychological. Here the irony is that all the family sacrificed, then the incredible talent actually realised. But it wasn’t Polunin’s own desire. And he struck struck out angrily — at least for a while — and shunned the family who sacrificed so much to make it possible. What was gained was a social good its subject and focus had no particular stake in, i.e. our enjoyment of his talent. He himself wanted first his family; then when he realised he couldn’t get that, maybe a car. Then when the realisation hit that’s that not what he’d be getting either. Well, why bother? There’s a Greek tragedy in this film, one that could have been better drawn out.
Richard Dyer, in a lovely piece wittily entitled ‘Classical ballet: a bit of uplift,’originally written for Marxism Today, writes‘, ‘Classical ballet celebrates the potential harmony of the human body, the utopian ideal of collective endeavour, the possibility of the interchange between the sexes of human qualities we now label masculine or feminine. Something of this is what has recommended ballet to the communisms of the ballet of the USSR, Cuba and China. Beneath the aristocratic tat of the settings and the charming but dispensable never-never of the stories, there is an implicitly socialist vision. (p. 42) Dyer, may be right. It’s part of the argument that’s been used about the Busby Berkeley musicals vs the Astaire and Rogers ones. You can be Ruby Keeler, clod-hop along as part of a group, and still create wonders if you work together. But ah, only Astaire and Rogers can be as exceptional as they are.
Dyer continues, ‘At one level, its yearning for the transcendent grace of the individual human body in the abstract is a refusal of the actual limitations of the human body in reality. But at another level, its dream of being at one with one’s body and of being the harmony (united in and through differences) with other bodies is the feeling form of socialism. And the fact that you have to train and work for this is what makes it most powerful of all. Classical ballet does not say harmony is natural to human beings, but rather we can learn to achieve it. Likewise, socialism does not emanate from us naturally, it is the harmony we can learn to create together. (p.44)
Those two quotes of Dyer’s are so fascinating because we can see how they are so regarding the potential of the human body, the sexes, etc. But also how it’s not so. Here we see footage of Polunin at thirteen, dancing with a skill and ease that leaves all his colleagues in the dust, and enjoying it. He knows he’s exceptional. That he’ll be the star, and they will be the collectivised chorus who’s primary goal is to make him shine. Polunin — not to speak of all the sexual intrigues, competitiveness, nasty plotting and criminal acts of violence that recently occurred at the Bolshoi — indicates that if classical ballet has a feeling form evoking socialism, it’s one with a place for a Stalinist variant, with competition, exceptionalism, and hierarchy; with a natural selection harnessed before children are even given the choice and before the age where consent is in any way be meaningful, and then ruthlessly honed to the point where they are either exceptional enough to thrive, mediocre enough for the corps de ballet, or ruthlessly expunged from the stage altogether. Caught between one of the stage mothers of all time, a gentle and giving father, and evidence of natural ability, Dancer demonstrates the what, why and how of Polunin, marvellously.