Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rambling around a couple of random topics

I’ve come back to the world, after an evening of fantastic Sibelius (more on this anon) and a night when I actually slept moderately well and didn’t bash my right arm at any point. I am glad to be less miserable than yesterday.

Sadly the office still reeks of solvents (downstairs is being refurbished and the pong of glue and paint is pretty extreme). But I am awake and alive; I am wearing my new dress; I have another concert tonight and physio and The Geek’s birthday party tomorrow; and next week I have another concert (Ravel, Poulenc, Debussy), my cousin Richard’s birthday party, and a Portuguese contemporary dance group to look forward to. So life can’t be all bad, now can it? I must learn to go with the flow and not howl like a dog when I feel tired; as the cliché has it, it is all part of life’s rich pattern.

Onward, ever onward.

Reading Henrik’s recent post about the question of male dancers and masculinity leaves me painfully aware that pretty much every time I go to a ballet performance I come back raving about the men. Raving as in “Cor, X is such a hunk”. Now I feel like a bit of a letch.

I know it’s partly because I don’t have the knowhow to comment on anyone’s dancing technique. I only feel qualified (for want of a better word) to write about their overall performance – did they stun me? did they move me? are they musical? are they compelling on stage? did they tell the story well and convince as a character? best of all, did this wonderful and extraordinary medium called ballet transcend itself in this performer’s hands? Watching “Ondine” last summer, the answer was “yes” to all of this. But I couldn’t tell you why, technically, Miyako Yoshida and Ed Watson knock me out; just that they do. Mr Watson’s extraordinary looks are a plus, though (I have this thing about ginger…).

I know that “porte de bras” means “carriage of arms”, for example. But, frankly, to my eyes most dancers carry their arms pretty beautifully; it seems to go with the job. So I can’t say “His/her porte de bras” is terrific/appalling/unusual” as I don’t know what I’m talking about, and that goes for almost everything technical.

I feel just about able to say a chap’s partnering is good. Trust between performers cannot be faked on stage, and some guys just seem to know how to partner a ballerina without either a) looking nervous, b) making her look nervous, c) upstaging her, or d) vanishing behind her into switched-off non-presence, hoisting and parrying her body while he thinks about toast, or how much his corns are hurting. I watch a man who can lift a fully grown woman into the air and hold her up there with one arm, make it look both elegant and easy, and act as well, and my heart beats a little faster, because that is, to put it bluntly, bl**dy amazing.

One of the reasons I find ballet an astounding medium is because it offers me athleticism (and of a particularly superb order, at that) at the service of beauty. There are very few opportunities elsewhere to see this. Sport certainly offers the spectacle of magnificently trained people exercising their skills; but to the end of scoring runs, winning titles, or honouring their country. And (with the exception of figure skaters and some gymnasts) they can be as ugly as they like about it, because competing and if possible winning are all that count. They can pull horrible faces, stagger, stick their bums out, and scream aloud if they want to. Dancers do all those astonishing physical feats, but they do them with beauty and in the service of beauty. They do them with a smile, and no more sound than a little graceful and rather sexy panting, while the average tennis player is grimacing and grunting like a warthog with every stroke (yes, Mr Murray, I am thinking of you).

As one of the articles linked in Henrik’s piece says, boys are taught that “the real Man definitely does not express beauty”.

That’s the crux of the issue, of course; that toxically-loaded term “real Man”. Huge cans of worms are opening under me as I write, I expect. But I want to throw up when I am reminded how widespread this idea and its associates still are. "A real man can’t dance, or wouldn’t want to be able to. Therefore men who can dance are gay. Gay men are not real men". Oh, what a load of bollocks.

Of course there are gay male dancers; and there are lesbian dancers and straight ones too. Just as there are gay, and lesbian, and straight, accountants, film-makers, tree surgeons, optometrists, police officers and effing bl**dy zombies... Simple population distribution means that every sub-set within the species is likely to be represented within every field of activity which that species performs.

A real man can’t dance, ergo a man who can dance is not a real man? Excuse me while I choke on my nasty instant coffee. So - a bloke who can lift another human being above his head and not even look mildly pushed by the job is effeminate? A man who has the strength of character to work that hard, year after year, who attains and maintains that degree of physical fitness, and faces that much daily risk of painful and possibly dangerous injury, is, whatever his sexuality, not a Man, simply because he is doing it for beauty rather than for Olympic gold? Bloody hell; that stinks worse than all the solvent fumes in hell. It is heartbreaking that such rubbish is still so widespread, and promulgated without hesitation even by otherwise perfectly intelligent people. Good for Henrik and the others he offers links to for standing up and ranting about it.

Incidentally, and moving sideways slightly, did you know that in classical Greece male bisexuality was the norm? It was not just socially accepted but socially expected; and, surprise, surprise, the vast majority of men in that society were bisexual and perfectly happy about it. Granted the view of women then was pretty gobsmacking to a modern mind (some classical writers claimed there was doubt as to whether we were even fully human – the male being the real human and the woman a kind of poor imitation). But anyway, sexuality is not a line in the sand. It is a wonderfully natural and (if given the chance) pretty fluid thing which is an essential part of being human, in all its manifestations.

And - it is none of my business. Other people’s private lives are private, unless they choose to talk about them.

That being so, I shall continue to come back from a trip to the ballet saying “Cor, X is a hunk”. I have no idea who is straight as a die, who is bi, who is gay as an Easter bonnet, among the hothothot dancers I so admire. I love them all, indiscriminately, because they are brilliant at what they do and they inspire my awe and delight. They are supreme examples of magnificent, primal masculinity, and they are beautiful with it. And at the Royal Ballet, several of them are even ginger.

I’ve probably offended against all manner of sacred cows now; never mind, it won’t hurt me if they bite, since their teeth only exist online.

Onward, or rather back, to the concert last night.

Osmo Vänskä is rather special, too; not a hunk, in fact skinny and with thinning hair. But he moves around the podium like an imp on fire. (A "Maestros Strictly Come Dancing Special" would probably come down to a dead heat between him, Salonen, and Gustavo Dudamel - I have a lovely mental picture of the three of them tangoing about the place with – let me think – Erin Boag, Ola Jordan and Kristina Rihanoff. Okay, calm down, Dent).

The concert was the third of four that the LPO are giving, working through a bunch of big Sibelius works including all the symphonies. Last night started with “Luonnotar” with an amazing Finnish soprano called Helena Juntunen (I may have spelled that wrong) giving a riveting performance; incantatory and chilling. Then Symphonies no 4, (which I’d never heard before) and no 5 (which I know and love). No 4 turns out to be bleak, majestic and lost; a taste of the sublime, but in the most unearthly and unheimlich way. No 5 by contrast takes all the uncomfortable elements from this and restates them (I’m thinking in aesthetic terms, not musical ones – please don’t misunderstand me) with joyous certainty and a grandeur like the restoration of a cathedral or the growth of a forest.

I was struck, both last night and at the first concert, last week, by how incredibly modern Sibelius sounds, when played with this sort of precision and perfectly-controlled yet risk-embracing attack. (Should mention at this juncture that, just as with ballet, I lack the technical knowledge and vocabulary to express what I want to say, and I may be talking complete balls as a result). I was vividly aware of how often there is this structural device of tiny, endlessly repeated segments of music, particularly in the string sections, giving a sort of rhythmic chugging within which endless slight variations carry things forward through the changing of single notes or the adding or subtracting of a layer of sound from another section of the orchestra… I was reminded of Michael Nyman, and I hadn’t expected to be. I’m sure “rhythmic chugging” is a dumb turn of phrase but it is the best I can do, so apologies to anyone who doesn’t like it. It was a lovely concert, anyway.

And since I am going to another concert tonight - Benjamin, Stravinsky and Bartok, yum! - I had better pack up and stop rambling on, and get out of the pongwhiffy office.

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