sun 21/09/2014

South Bank Show: The Male Dancer, Sky Arts 1 | Dance reviews, news & interviews

South Bank Show: The Male Dancer, Sky Arts 1

Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Acosta make a superbly glamorous trio, but few new revelations

Escapees: Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov (both by Richard Avedon), Carlos Acosta (by Johan Persson)

Male dancers are a puzzle to British audiences, where they are an uncomplicated, taken-for-granted treasure in Latin or Slav countries. I point this out gratuitously, as it's a point that wasn't touched upon by Melvyn Bragg's film about three iconic men of ballet, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Carlos Acosta.

But this was not a historical survey of attitudes to male dancers and how Oliver Cromwell messed with British heads - that interesting possibility remains unrealised on TV. This was about the act of fleeing slavery to find freedom, from constricted motherland to liberated Western art world, Nureyev and Baryshnikov both being Soviet Union defectors, Acosta having left Cuba. The familiar escape stories were retold, flavoured by some insightful comments by the ballerina Tamara Rojo, who asked if the public didn't in fact love this "outsider" status to use it to romanticise their view of them.

Extremes of emotion have been replaced by extremes of motion

She's right - yet there was enough performance film here to excite. Nureyev, always on the edge, daring and feral, a high-wire-over-Niagara-Falls act; Baryshnikov, supremely well-contained in his natural brilliance; Acosta, the most courteous of them, the most careful, the most self-tamed. It's easy to forget that dancers are rarely filmed, and indeed hardly ever filmed at the point the public would most want them to be.

Bragg’s interviews with all three, dating back to 1991 in Nureyev's case, discovered little in common between them except for their news-making emigrations, and we were left no wiser about what their past training particularly contributed to their lustre nor what they passed on to other male dancers.

But the programme did unwittingly expose how the British view of male dancers now has subtly altered, along with the dismantling of barriers and mystique between men and women in our society. Rojo said that "when a male dancer captures the public it's usually because he's outrageous, and so it should be. His dance is usually more abandoned and wild." It was evidently true of Nureyev in the clips and interviews - a magnetic, restive character seen in his last years, naked on his Caribbean island, gilding his self-image as an innately isolated soul.

edward watson mayerlingBut outrageous isn't so easy now. To talk of a “male star” is not so simple nor even, maybe, as welcome. Today's Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson performs the more dramatic roles arrestingly (pictured right in Mayerling, by Charlotte MacMillan) but told Bragg he finds fulfilment dancing the abstract gymnastic ensembles of the choreographer Wayne McGregor, exercising his remarkable physique, rather than tearing out his emotions and psychoses. Extremes of emotion have been replaced by extremes of motion, you might say.

That leap - from the fervent male drama of personal dislocation that MacMillan felt Nureyev had uncorked in the Sixties and Seventies (a time of large changes in male perception, sexuality-wise) to the cool, nerveless athletic feats expected of today's male dancers - was not explored, a large question begged.

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