I’m not really a ballet fan. I don’t dislike it, but I don’t go out of my way to watch it, either. I certainly appreciate the skill, athleticism and artistry of dancers, but somehow it doesn’t grab me the way that live music or theatre does. Maybe I’m just resentful that I wasn’t the kind of twiggy, graceful little girl who would have felt comfortable in a ballet class, who knows. Given this — shall we call it indifference? — to ballet, I was surprised to find myself watching Balletboyz ‘Young Men’, a ballet about First World War soldiers screened recently on BBC Two. I was even more surprised when I couldn’t stop watching it.
The film of the ballet (as opposed to their live performance of it in the theatre) is unconventional in many ways. It is performed on location in Northern France (most of it outdoors), and at times the dancers are in the rain, smeared with mud, or in one memorable scene, grappling in a water-filled shell hole. The score is also modern and atmospheric, written by Keaton Henson, who I already knew and admired from his recent albums. I think this all added to my enjoyment of it, and made the ballet much more visceral and earthy (literally).
Near the start of the film, there’s a very powerful and moving scene. A woman (we assume the mother of a young man on the Front) finds herself instantly transported from a quiet church to the battlefield, looking at a line of men with their backs to her. Suddenly, every other man crumples to the ground, like a puppet with its strings cut. Their comrades turn to look at them, and then slowly pick them up and put them back on their feet, gently lifting their heads and straightening their limbs. The woman is horrified, but this is her dream, and she cannot reach them or do anything to intervene or help. As they all start to move around, other men begin to fall, and again others labour to lift them up, but as this goes on, all become increasingly plastered with mud, and fewer men are left standing to help the fallen. The mud itself seems to be pulling the men down, and at the end of the scene, all of the men have merged with the mud, indistinguishable from it and each other.
There were other memorable scenes, including the bullying of a soldier by his superior officer during their drills, and a difficult to watch scene depicting someone with shell shock, recoiling from everything and making painful, contorted shapes with their body. Since I am not a regular ballet watcher, I have no idea if this was ‘good’ ballet, but it was certainly moving. The film is available on iPlayer for another 15 days as I write this, so if you have access to iPlayer, I would recommend watching it, even if — like me — you are not a ballet fan.