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Men at the Barre
Inside the Royal Ballet
MIKE DIXON reviews a new documentary filmed and directed by Richard Macer
Oxford Films for the BBC
Broadcast: BBC4 21.00 Wednesday 27 May
Available on BBC iPlayer for one month
Men at the Barre opens with the on-air public apology of Laura Spencer, the ABC News presenter whose foolish and intemperate mockery of a boy, Prince George, taking ballet lessons fuelled a righteous backlash in the USA. It is an inventive and apposite introduction to Richard Macer’s documentary, which rightly celebrates the current “golden generation of male stars at The Royal Ballet”. There is a plethora of visually arresting images, and many interesting comments made by the dancers, that make this programme well worth watching. Unfortunately, Macer’s occasionally wince-making script is over two decades out of date. For instance, talking generally about men in ballet: “For many years the man has been a figure of fun, not quite manly enough and only there to make the women look good… but things are changing…” If Macer had been better informed about the subject he had chosen for his film, tweedy and twee utterances of this nature would not have been included.
He poses the question, early on, “What is it like to be a man in the world of ballet today?” and it is answered, almost accidentally, by the articulate Royal Ballet dancers he interviews, but without conveying any overarching sense of structure to the programme. There is a coy discussion about dance belts where the words dance belt, jock or genitals are never uttered by the slightly dismayed interviewees, who would normally have no inhibitions about discussing such matters. Given the title, the word barre might have been worth a mention; there is no sequence in a ballet class to demonstrate the function of the barre, but a photo shoot with Marcelino Sambé for Esquire magazine gives the general viewer some clues. Many well-known dancers feature in group conversations but are not identified by the usual convention of a subtitle card. Dancer anonymity is not something we should approve.
The intelligent comments made by Steven McRae, Marcelino Sambé, Joseph Sissens, Vadim Muntagirov, Cesar Corrales, Valentino Zucchetti and Matthew Ball are a very positive aspect of the documentary. These men are generally relaxed and natural in front of the camera and speak with honesty about aspects of their lives and careers. They provide the documentary with its factual and emotional ballast. Some of the older male
dancers seem curiously ill at ease with the presence of the cameras in their dressing room, but banal questions can have that effect on any artist. This is not the case with principal guest ballet master Christopher Carr, who at 70 has the feistiness and energy of a man half his age. Having just conducted a rehearsal on camera, he is asked: “Were you a ballet dancer?” To his great credit he answers the question without rolling his eyes to heaven. Asked about Rudolf Nureyev, he states correctly that Nureyev would not have been such a big star today (because of his technical limitations) whilst acknowledging his magnetic quality on stage.
McRae talks about the difficulty of coming back from major injuries; Zucchetti, about the frustrations of not being promoted and making the choice between being a principal dancer in another company, or remaining with the company he loves; Muntagirov and Alexander Campbell play basketball in the dressing room like a couple of mischievous schoolboys. Sissens talks about the racist comments he had to deal with as a vulnerable seven-year-old; up on the dancers’ roof terrace, with its panoramic view of Covent Garden, Sambé discusses his mother putting him up for adoption after his father died. Matthew Ball discusses his loving relationship with his parents and leafs through the scrapbook they made for him, in what is a very touching scene. Cumulatively, these stories create vibrant impressions of what it is like to be a male dancer at the top of his game in The Royal Ballet.
The voiceover at the end states: “We are learning at last to love these men in tights, almost as much as the ballerinas in their tutus.” Well no, that process actually started with Nijinsky at the beginning of the twentieth century; and whilst the nineteenth century was, quite rightly, the undisputed era of the ballerina, we now live in a twenty-first century where the best-known dance superstars are mainly male. There are, as yet, no popular programmes like Men in Motion or Kings of the Dance designed for ballerinas. This is the current reality of the ballet world, but one which has rather eluded this documentary. However, the sheer talent on display, the brief glimpses of artistic, lyrical or bravura dancing from a stable of outstanding male talent, actually makes Macer’s programme highly enjoyable and probably worth repeated viewings.