Sunday, October 4, 2009

Steel Ballerina

Steel ballerina
Tempo 09 Dance Festival
4:00pm Sunday 4th October 2009, TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs, Auckland

Reviewed by Rosemary Martin

I was hopeful that Steel ballerina might just be a production that would offer the ‘real, rough and raw’ side of the balletic environment, through a production inspired by the life of Dame Margot Fonteyn, Prima Ballerina Assoluta - the woman who was possibly the epitome of all things ballet. As the advertising stated, Steel ballerina was to explore “... the idea of a creative expiry date and the private versus public face of a dancer”, I was hyped.
Steel ballerina, created by Mel Dodge, Pagan Dorgan and Jacqueline Coats, and performed by Dodge and Dorgan, demonstrates that unless you have a very real understanding of the nuances of the ballet world, it is difficult to offer an audience a version of events that is free of stereotypes and clich├ęs.

Blending fact with fiction the performance merges narrative and movement. The narrative, provided in short vignettes incorporating the experiences of Fonteyn and friends (Nureyev, de Valois and the fictional ‘Anna’), were well crafted and poised, and it was apparent that Dodge, Dorgan and Coats had done their history homework.
The downfall of the production - the part where I just wanted to close my eyes and make it all go away –was when the dancing began, which is a shame when you consider that this is a production motivated by the lived experiences of one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th Century. I understand that Dodge and Pagan were not attempting to emulate Fonteyn’s movement; however some refinement, originality and sophistication in both the choreography and dancing could have gone a long way in making this work more convincing and compelling.

The movement vocabulary itself was lacking in depth and substance, with the section performed by Dorgan on the floor being cringe-worthy and unattractive. The soundtrack – a blend of artists such as Bjork and Thom Yorke, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Purcell, Jeff Buckley and Gary Lucas – fitted the storyline like a glove, though only further emphasised the lack of choreographic development and innovation. The lighting by Corinne Simpson was superb and provided a focus for those times when I couldn’t bring myself to view yet another sickled foot in sur le cou-de-pied.

It was clear that the focus of this work should have remained on the spoken text and sharing the fascinating on and off stage moments of Fonteyn’s life. Steel ballerina only just began to raise themes such as identity, transitions, retirement, pressure, fear, aging and pain in ballet, without looking to explore why or how such issues exist and are dealt with in the ballet world. There are hints offered that Fonteyn’s life may have been much more complex than just tutu’s, Tchaikovsky ballets and Covent Garden premieres, however we never find out much more that the subtle suggestions offered throughout the work.
I learnt two things from this production, firstly that I shouldn’t have got my hopes up, and secondly you should always believe the wise words of Public Enemy - “don’t believe the hype”.

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