May 27, 2020
Men at the Barre is a neat title for a programme that questions whether we are finally learning to love those men in tights. It took the bull by the horns and plunged straight in by dealing with the underwear, the ubiquitous jockstrap, then moved swiftly on. When, several months back, TV presenter, Lara Spencer, sniggered at a boy doing ballet, (and the boy happened to be a prince), she misjudged badly. The backlash marathon male ballet class in the streets outside the studio in New York was a joy to behold. We’re not going to convert the whole world to the joy of ballet, but this programme played its part in showing the strength, commitment and courage needed for a male dancer to make it to the top.
Fortunately, The Royal Ballet, and the focus was exclusively on the Royal, has a cohort of very personable young men to state their case. In performance, in rehearsals and chatting in the dressing rooms they came across as accessible although definitely not ordinary.
There were thrilling moments as high flyers like Vadim Muntagirov and Cesar Corrales whipped around the rehearsal room in a flurry of jetés, or a multitude of pirouettes, although I was sorry more footage was not given to pas de deux and partnering skills. The combination of strength, precision and timing necessary for this unique art, makes riveting viewing especially when focusing on the man’s role. However, the brief clips of the trio with Lauren Cuthbertson, Marcelino Sambé and Matthew Ball in Cathy Marston’s The Cellist, introduced these skills while showing that ballet is not only about fairy tales.
What the film captured with incisive accuracy was the precarious nature of a dancer’s career. Following the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Royal Ballet School students just joining the company, the dancers making serious choices as they approach retirement or the dancers moving into second careers in coaching or choreography, it highlighted the uncertainties at each stage.
Throughout, the overriding passion of the dancers for their art and their positive energy never flagged. Steven McRae’s torn Achilles tendon, just as he returned from injury was a devastating blow but the grit he showed in the painful rehabilitation was an inspiration. Edward Watson, a dancer who has enjoyed an exemplary career with the company, pondered when it will be time to step down. Good companies appreciate their older dancers and Watson is finding his niche in passing on his wealth of knowledge to upcoming dancers. Valentino Zucchetti, who made a frank admission about his disappointment in not achieving principal status, searches for other outlets and is seen rehearsing a piece of his own choreography.
Notably with men, for whom ballet has not been seen as a regular career choice, there are the amazing stories of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds finding their way to the Royal Opera House stage. Marcelino Sambé, one of the most vibrant and popular of the rising stars had a poverty-stricken childhood in Lisbon. The hugely talented Joseph Sissens admitted that a vicious remark suggesting that he would never be any good was the spur to make him succeed.
The interviews with the dancers who are now character artists and ballet masters revealed stories of unpleasant bullying in their early years but there is a sense that ballet is becoming a respected career choice. Certainly not one of dancers showed the slightest regret for choosing ballet and it was a real feel-good message in difficult times.
A small caveat: It would have been a good move to show that ballet, as well as prejudicial attitudes, are changing and adjusting to new norms. The performance excerpts were predominantly from The Sleeping Beauty (with a very persistent Bluebird). A section from Crystal Pite’s Flight Patterns, or some Wayne MacGregor would have proved that the art form can tackle modern issues and modern art forms.
Men at the Barre – Inside The Royal Ballet is now available on BBC iPlayer (UK only).