Ballet of Empathy: The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – Richmond Theatre

I think I had good reason to be dubious about a ‘holocaust ballet’, which is what I faced myself with this evening at Richmond Theatre. The thought of dancing Nazis and over-sentimentality filled me with unease, and a trace of dread. However, Northern Ballet surprised me; ballet, they showed, can be the language not of poise, parody or pretence, but of empathy.

Photo credit: Emma Kauldhar, Northern Ballet
Photo credit: Emma Kauldhar, Northern Ballet

This poignant story of two young boys meeting and befriending across the fence of a Nazi concentration camp began life as a bestselling novel by John Boyne in 2006, which in 2008 became a  big-budget international film. But bodies can express as much as, and sometimes more , than words on the page and dance though not the language of factual, historical accuracy (as the book itself was also criticised for lacking) can be the language to express that emotion and empathy within.I haven’t read the book or seen the film, but watching the bond between the boys develop in the evolving symmetry of their movements, was deeply moving to behold. As Shmuel (danced tonight by Filippo Di Vilio) bowed and contorted in hunger, Bruno would mirror his movements by way of understanding. As Bruno (danced tonight by Matthew Koon) would reach and stretch his arms to the sky in childlike abandonment, Schmuel would, yearning, stretch and attempt to match him. In moments of fantasy, the fence and walls would rise and the pair would dance and tumble together in the wide, open blue. It is a rare treat to see two male principal ballerinas dance a dance of friendship, and one Daniel de Andrade‘s choreography realises beautifully.

‘The Fury’, Bruno’s understanding of ‘The Führer’ is ever present in the lives of every character, and so is expressed as a dark, looming and gas-masked figure. Like death itself, it stalks the stage, leans in close to the Nazis and their contorted victims. Seeming neither male nor female, it’s movements are fluid and yet intensely threatening, it’s menace indiscriminate. The standout performance of the piece.

Photo credit: Emma Kauldhar, Northern Ballet
Photo credit: Emma Kauldhar, Northern Ballet

Whilst the characterisation and relationships are strong, the story loses some of its power in being transformed to ballet. It is unavoidable but none the less noticeable that we are expected to believe a strong and powerful adult male ballet dancer is a starving nine year old concentration camp prisoner. It just doesn’t conjure the same visual horror. There is very little in fact, to realise any of the real horrors or hardships of the camp victims. Scmuel struggles with a wheelbarrow and endures a beating in one scene, but the overall effect is just too clean and shiny and far removed from the true horror of the setting and subject matter at hand.

In all, it is an ugly subject beautifully and tenderly explored through the wide, yet naive eyes of children.

This production is now on a UK tour, see here for upcoming dates, June – October.

 

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