I still salivate when I recapture Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of the Swan Lake ballet with the male swans. It is a sublime reincarnation of the original, with some humor and whimsicality thrown in for good measure. Even though its story diverges from the original, the music is faster and more authentic than in the traditional ballets. It would have made Tchaikovsky proud.
Bourne is a film buff, and brings his cinematic sensibilities to ballet, which makes it all the more appealing to me. In an interview, he shared that he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds, especially in Act 4 of the Swan Lake when the swans turn savage. Hitchcock is a very visual filmmaker. A lot of his storytelling is defined by the way he frames the shots, moves the camera, lights the scene, among other things. So it is interesting to see Bourne bring that sensibility to the staging of a ballet. His characters too take on Hitchcocky characteristics, such as, identity confusion, self-entrapment, paranoia, and some oedipal issues (although he says he was more influenced by Hamlet’s jealousy of his mother’s lover in this aspect); likewise, you see Hitchcockyness in the way he slowly reveals all the aspects of a character over the course of the ballet, and in the way he places the horror in everyday settings.
I have been meaning to read his conversation with Alastair Macaulay about his life, his various works and influences. I wonder if someone with his encyclopaedic knowledge about the arts works off of his subconscious memory, without even intending to draw from them. I might enjoy reading the conversation now, especially since I saw two of his three Tchaikovsky ballets.
Last week, I saw Bourne's Sleeping Beauty ballet at Kennedy Center, in which he spruced up the Disney version of the story with vampires and other gothic elements; all to Tchaikovsky’s music. I expected it to be either old-school Gothic-like, with elements of the original grotesque Sleeping Beauty story, or with Tim Burton’s eccentric style, since Bourne has adapted Edward Scissorhands to contemporary dance with great success in the past. But, it ended up being somewhat tame. With some imagination, it comes close to being as scarily vampiric as the True Blood or the Twilight series.
Perrault’s original story and most early European versions of Sleeping Beauty* had a lot more gothic elements in them than this ballet. Here is my blend of some of the stories I have read:
After the Princess falls asleep, a strange Prince from the neighboring kingdom climbs a tower to find the Princess (assumed dead in some stories) lying in her coffin wearing seven white bridal skirts and silver bells. He is bewitched by her beauty and returns to the tower everyday. One day he kisses her on her lips, and is overwhelmed with an insuppressible urge to keep kissing, until he finally rapes her. Eventually, she gives birth to twins (a boy and a girl). One of her babies mistakes her finger for her breast. He suckles hard on it, and fortuitously pulls out the needle stuck in her finger that put her to sleep. She wakes up and learns that she has been asleep for a hundred years. Just then, the Prince too climbs over the tower and introduces himself as the father to her two children. She instantly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him. Unhappily, the Prince reveals that his stepmother, an Ogress, might not accept the Princess, and may even cause her and her children harm if she finds out about them. So they keep their marriage a secret until the Prince ascends the thrown. The Ogress, then lovingly invites the whole family to her house in the woods, and directs her cook to serve the Princess and the kids as dinner to the Prince. The kind-hearted cook tricks the Ogress and switches the daughter with a lamb, son with a goat, and Princess with hind, and hides the Princess and the kids from the Ogress' sight. But, when the Ogress learns that she has been tricked, she becomes wildly furious and takes matters into her own hands. When the Prince is resting, she orders the cook to summon the Princess, and prepares a fiery pit with noxious creatures to throw the Princess into it. As the Princess is undressed, the silver bells on her skirts ring loudly and alert the Prince. He runs to her rescue. The disgraced Ogress then throws herself into the pit and is fully consumed. The Prince, Princess and the kids live happily ever after.
In Matthew Bourne’s ballet, the Princess falls in love with a gamekeeper, and not a Prince. When she goes to sleep, a fairy turns him into a vampire, so that he can live to see the Princess when she wakes up after 100 years. As the eras change, the Prince goes through enormous transformation. He is now only vestigially a human, and faced with absolute indigence (uncharacteristic of a vampire). He lives in a tent outside the decaying palace overgrown with vines, and woefully waits to wake the Princess up with a kiss. In the mean time, the evil fairy who cursed the Princess to sleep grows lonely and courts the Princess even though she is asleep. He too waits for her to wake up so that he can make her his bride. In the end, the fairy who turned the gamekeeper into a vampire makes quick work of the evil fairy, and the Princess and the gamekeeper live happily every after.
This is the only version of Sleeping Beauty with both male and female fairies, and where time does not stand still, except for Sleeping Beauty. The scenery assumes many transitions, and we are treated to settings of the Late Victorian period, the Edwardian period and modern day; in Russia. But, even as time passes, the story is bound to the historic moment when the curse took effect and put the Princess to sleep. From then on, we deal with the past in the present, and some aspects of the story remain immutable. This is amplified by the fact that time has completely stopped for Sleeping Beauty. Even in the future, in her dreams, she remains in the past.
I love romance. It is the most veritable way to experience something unreal happening to us. In romance, we reach out to a fantasy that wasn’t instinctually real for us until then. We embrace this irrepressible feeling, even though it contradicts our natural urge to shelter ourselves from the unattainable, albeit with eager hesitation. Love always brings with it a sweet pain. And Gothic, with its excesses, elevates this feeling to an epic stature. It turns reality on its head, so that the improbable is probable and the real is unreal. It drops us where opposing qualities mingle and bring forth a pleasing terror.
Over the years, Gothic has evolved into male and female genres (mostly a separate female genre), with the former being associated with horror and the latter with terror.
In the female Gothic, where women write for women, the stories mostly cater to women’s suppressed desires. At the same time, they also play on their everyday fears of rape, abduction and violence; and remind them of their reality of being weaker, helpless and oppressed by men. The plot oscillates between reality and the supernatural, while often siding with one over the other. Many women authors favor “imagined evil” over the supernatural or “realistic evil”; the philosophy being that real terror arises from the voices in one’s own mind.
Even in the earliest gothic stories ever written (and by men), women were mostly depicted as being fearfully trapped, either physically in labyrinths, or mentally, because of their own discrepant impulses.
In male Gothic (as in, general Gothic), pain is mixed with pleasure to form a pleasing horror. The horror is considered pleasurable because of our awareness that the perception of fear is fictional. The stories heighten uncertainty and celebrate the immeasurable. The contemplation of the immeasurability arouses awe, while our inability to fathom it gives rise to displeasure.
I find that Sleeping Beauty is among the rare exceptions that transcends this distinction. Each version of the story fleshes out either the terror or the horror in the story, or both!
Mathew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty begins in 1890, the year that the original Sleeping Beauty ballet premiered in Russia. Interestingly, this time period was also the beginning of the century of Gothic fiction (or Fin de siècle). This was also the period of degeneration, when cynicism and pessimism among the people led to decadence. Gothic was everywhere, in art, in plays and operas, novels and short stories, and even newspapers.
This was the era of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Stoker’s Dracula, Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, and James’ Turn of the Screw. The 1900s was also when cinema was introduced to the larger mainstream, followed by radio and television. People began their visual assault of the next 125 years of cinema with fiction that had strong gothic elements. The malleable and fantastic nature of Gothic added to the magic of moving images. And because Gothic is the genre of Borrowings, which cannot be circumscribed to any one period or style, it helped address many cultural concerns. It blends romanticism with idealism, and individualism with societal decadence, and anything else that you want to add to the mix.
But, the story arc is almost always one of subversion. Set in the gloom of a cursed castle or strange world, the good people are at the mercy of dark powers, whose origin is shrouded. They lurk in the shadows, waiting for a ripe time to threaten the people into physical and mental dissolution using diabolical means. But, in the end, through bravery or deception, the hero vanquishes the evil and good prevails. (Unless it is Grimm’s Tales, in which case, the story may end with the children being eaten).
But, in Michel Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty with vampires and a princess hijacked by dreams, it is not the hero who vanquishes evil, but a fairy, because the hero isn’t even fully solid! His abhuman gothic body is as helpless as the Princess languishing in the unconscious world.
In a way, we relate to them, because we have at least in one point in our life experienced the state of being both alive and ‘not’; be it in our mother’s womb, or in our sleep or in some kind of unconsciousness. We have, through the use of hallucinogens or because of illness, experienced feeling out of control, and not feeling fully human. We have waited endlessly, and helplessly, for our loved one to be saved by a miracle. We viscerally remember this as we watch the plights of the Princess and the Gamekeeper.
There is something to say for the fact that these stories have eternal appeal. We keep readapting them with little changes to their basic features. This may be because they provide symbolic mechanisms to help us confront the anomalies and contradictions even in our modern times. And because they are set in haunting distance from us, they provide us with time-honored way to deal with our forbidden desires and deviant thoughts that we divorce ourselves from in real life.
Gothic allows us to transgress moral laws in a richly complex way. There is mental degeneration, spiritual corruption, selfish ambition and carnal desire, but they are all obscured of single meaning by a supernatural subtext. The supernatural allows us to take everything in without being troubled with moral judgment. But, when the story ends on a happy note, we are forced to assimilate the moral of the story; that transgression, even in its darkest form comes with dangers. Terror begins where the rules of social behavior are neglected. This helps restore moral lines. This story would have been entirely different if the king did not neglect to invite the evil witch who granted them a daughter, to her christening ceremony!
The ballet lends itself surprising well to this Gothic retelling of a fairytale. Gothic in many ways opposes the rigidity of classical ballet. Its aesthetic rules insist on unity and symmetry. But here, you see the dancers break rules, and embrace disarray, and play up the grandeur and magnificence of the gothic world.
While writing this post, I read that Bourne used About the Sleeping Beauty by PL Travers (a book that shares five versions of Sleeping Beauty) and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (a book that analyses children's fairytales), for his research! I wonder if he decided that the original Sleeping Beauty plots had very little love, and too much macabre weirdness even for a Gothic retelling. Moreover, what would you make of a story where a Prince looks at a sleeping Princess for the very first time, and kisses her, and she wakes up and immediately agrees to marry him? Bourne was not impressed. Is love at first sight, with a comatosed Princess, or with a strange Prince who kisses you in your sleep, your thing? The impossible love between a commoner and royalty in a supernatural world is still far more Gothicy and realistic!
*Here is a list of some popular Sleeping Beauty versions: The Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault, Little Briar Rose and The Evil Mother-in-Law (split into two stories) by the Brothers Grimm, a story in Frayre de Joy e Sor de Placer (A14th century Catalan collection), ‘Troylus and Zellandine’ in the Perceforest, Sole, Luna e Talia in The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, Sleeping Beauty and her Children in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales… and a gazillion other variants, not including adaptations in other non-literary mediums.
April 2013 Filed in: Films
This is the kind of film that allows my thoughts to repose. It’s like what one does before they fall asleep at the end of the day. All the thoughts in the head float about listlessly, too tired to organize themselves, until sleep lulls them into the unconscious, where they morph into dreams and drift into the void. Each sequence in the film is a thought, a scene from a different story that lets on some truth or alludes to some mystery; but before it fully reveals itself, it disappears into the unknown.
It’s a simple story with a linear narrative structure and conventional character arc, and yet, its treatment is reminiscent of Nietzsche’s proposition that we must arrange our waking life the same way we do our dreams. Nothing resembles the freewheeling visions of dreams more than cinema. When cinema was first popularized, it was hyped as the dream factory that allows us to penetrate the world of our repressed unconscious. Filmmakers meant to give meaning to the garbled imagery in our dreams, and further justify our primal and transgressive desires. Dreams became the most common narrative device.
Ergo, Holy Motors, which pays homage to the cinematic medium, begins with the very first films ever made; followed by a scene of “le dormeur” (a sleeper), who wakes up from his sleep but remains in something of a dream state. He unlocks a door with his metallic phallic middle finger, tears open the two-dimensional screen, and breaks into the cinematic world. This alludes to our love for and the transportative powers of cinema. What happens after that, where we can’t tell dream from reality is what Christian Metz, the famous french theorist calls ‘perceptual transference’.
At its simplest, the story is about a day in the life of a seasoned actor. A chauffeur drives him around Paris to his performance locations in a luxurious limousine car packed with costumes. On the way to each location, he reads a brief about the role he is about to perform, and methodically dresses for the part. He then gets out of the limousine, performs his bit, and gets back in the limousine and moves on to the next location. In total, he plays nine different personas, in nine very different projects. In one he plays a homeless old woman, in another a father to an insecure adolescent, then a dying man, a murderous doppelganger, a humanist boy toy making passionate love to woman in a motion-capture suit that eventually reveals itself as a duel between two animated beasts in a visual simulator, a grotesque manikin who role-plays various priapic vignettes with an impassioned model. Each acting gig outdoes the other in outlandishness. Then there are scenes of the actor when he is not performing, which are equally compelling; like one where he bumps into his world-weary ex-lover from the same profession who melodiously expresses her existential angst to him before killing herself.
The film is full of allusions to many art-forms, and filmic genres presented in chronological order from old silent films to science fiction, and themes of life and death from young adulthood to old age and the impermanence of relationships. Some of his roles dawdle between the real and the absurd. Even when you see his larger-than-life persona interacting with the real world, he exhibits a befuddling unworldliness that belongs in some place mythical; And for all that, there isn’t the slightest indication of a camera, film crew, set or stage being present (the chauffeur and limousine seem to symbolically represent the whole production team; In the end the limousines also seem to represent the end the celluloid era).
In a way the lack of cameras around the protagonist draws attention to the artificiality of the scenes more than if they had been present. At the same time their absence presents the antithesis to our views on the perceptive nature of the camera lens. In the film, it also leads to the protagonist’s real identity getting mixed up with the characters he portrays, and therefore the perceptual transference that the audience experiences is also felt by the character! He’s a man whose vocation is clearly consuming him. He looks sapped at the end of each performance, including after impassioned scenes suggesting eros. Every scene is sexually allegorical, blending surrealism with humanism and satire. There’s always the clash between the conscious and the subconscious, the logical and the illogical, the real world and the imagined one, the uncanny and the norm. It is a film caught between 'providing an impression' and 'creating an illusion' of reality! In a way it goes with the larger theme that only in dreams and fiction do we sustain contradiction!
I like avant-garde and experimental films because they occupy the space in the cinematic medium that is unadaptable. You cannot translate experimental films into any other medium because they are not about storytelling, but about celebrating that unique metaphysical quality of the cinematic form that makes it different from any other medium! For instance this film cannot be adapted into a book, a play, or any other form, even though it has a simple narrative structure with a clear beginning, middle and end, and following a chronological time order (morning to night in an actor's life), because the scenes that the filmmaker chose the actor to perform in the film are ostensibly ambiguous and dependent on the atmospheric qualities that can be suggested only cinematically. Every medium has that quality that is so unique to it that it cannot be adapted into another form. For example: non-narrative poetry and stream-of-consciousness writing in literature, movement based abstraction in dance, expressionism in painting....
That being said, what is also remarkable about each of the scenes is that, while they are abstract in the way they were presented, they each seem like scenes that can fit in more conventional stories. There is enough detail in each scene to help us imagine the premise of the larger story that they may fit into. Or, we can think of them as self-contained short stories, since short stories are generally edgy, and oftentimes begin without an exposition, right in the middle of the action, and end abruptly.
In the end, it’s a film like none other, and your read of it will certainly be different from mine!
Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.