Brushes with Culture

This is a space where I can reflect on the many fascinating things that I experience. Some of the things I brush with are Culture with a capital C. Others are just intriguing moments. Sometimes I am brushing with these moments in a hurry. This is a chance to relive those moments in tranquility. These are the stories I tell myself in those quieter moments.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Ballerinas, Dolls and other Automata

Hugging the Thames again this week for my more diverting activities and in the run-up to Christmas (or, perhaps more importantly to me, the point where the year hinges and the days start to grow imperceptibly longer), it's magic, music and those evocative moments when we reconnect with childhood that carry the day.

I'd been given tickets to The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House. I'd not have ordered them myself, but, as I didn't have to on this occasion, off I went. A side benefit of going to the ROH is the free copies of the Financial Times, so on the way home I read an interview with Mariah Carey on being a self-marketing commodity, but that's another story...

So, ballet. This production offers one of the most beautiful pieces of Christmas styling I've seen. The Independent called it '19th century Nuremberg' ('with snow lying thick on pointed roofs, lace on the dresses and gilt on the gingerbread'), which is funny, because it may well be that the inspiration for Julia Trevelyan Oman's nostalgic designs was indeed Nuremberg, (especially given the original tale comes from E.T.A. Hoffmann, via Tchaikowsky's Russia), but for me all true Christmases echo back to Nuremberg anyway, so I wouldn't really be able to tell. If it felt like a magical world, complete with biting air, clean snow, red ribbon, wooden toys and the smell of real pine and beeswax candles, then it was probably because they managed to capture something that I experienced as a child with my great-aunt... in Nuremberg. It was only later that I learnt there are few places in the world for which Christmas was designed and that Nuremberg is one of them.

A magician with secrets, an enchanted gift, a battle with the Mouse King, a guiding angel and a visit to the Kingdom of Sweets : it is of course the perennial Christmas favourite, The Nutcracker.The ballet draws on all the imagination and fantasy of of supernatural adventures on Christmas Eve, with Lev Ivanov's choreography reinterpreted by Peter Wright in what has become a favourite Royal Ballet production.

So says the Opera House blurb, but all one really needs to know is that it is a story of dolls coming to life. In this production, there is an ingenious moment when the toymaker waves his hands at the bedecked tree at the back of the stage and it starts to grow. As it rises, it widens and all the baubles, the candles and the presents on the tree grow larger and, by the time it has come to a stop, we have shrunk to be the same size as the marauding mouse army that appears next.

So there were things that I truly loved about being there, quite apart from the thrill I get from visiting the ROH and riding up and down on the escalator that looks out at the Design Council across the road. And that's not to mention the fine view of Covent Garden - itself not doing badly at the Christmas spirit, with mulled wine booths, a carousel and a late market - that one gets from the terrace by the top bar.

But, the ballet... How did dance - that raw form of expression which precedes indiscriminate coupling in many cultures; which throbs along with the percussion; which captures the flirtiousness of whole nations - how did dance get so perfected and so lame? What a cul-de-sac! Here were some of the world's finest ballerinas and their partners doing what they were supposed to, meticulously. And it was mechanistic and boring. It reminded me why I only go to modern dance. The only points that had me sitting forward were the Arabian, the Chinese and the Russian dances when everything had a little more gusto. (The points without points.) It got me reflecting that those days of Empire - middle class, white, anodyne Western Europe and its imitators - had nurtured ballet, like they had spawned the cigarette: yet another attempt to make life respectable and tidy. At least ballet isn't bad for your lungs. But it was clearly turning people into dolls.

Several days later, I found the next incarnation of childhood magic at the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre. The OXO Gallery was hosting a display of automata. These are toys that do something when you crank a handle. They don't look real at all, but they are usually designed with wit, based on characteristic movements of humans and animals, and some of them are very funny. In this respect, they beat ballerinas.

When I first saw an exhibition like this, I was enchanted. A friend waved a flier at me for a course in designing "Moving Toys" and that was one week in summer taken care of. At the South Bank last week, it was the second time I'd seen a whole roomful of them and the first time since I'd parted from the friends I made in making them. (See Rod Mantell's Flying Doctor, left.) Whether it was that some of the exhibits were broken - the cat didn't lick the milk; the ball had fallen out of the washing machine; the man and woman stood resolutely still, so I don't know what they normally did to each other - or whether I'd crossed the line from admirer to engineer, but I didn't find it magical in a Christmas-y way at all. I looked at the cams, the cranks and pulleys and speculated. I also thought about the half-finished toy I'd put down in the cellar when I got back from the course and realised I had itchy fingers to have another go at it for the first time in 18 months. Well, it's Christmas - time to call out the toymaker.


At 12:36 pm, Blogger JP said...

It's a funny (as in odd) ballet. The first half makes sense but has boring music. The second half makes no sense but has memorable music. But as you say the set was brilliant - in particular the staging of Clara shrinking.

My favourite moment however had nothing to do with the ballet itself. It was the rather honest reaction of the boy to our left which was to give the most "pink fairy barbie twiddly bits" a series of rasberries!

William the Brave would have been proud.


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