Ballet Boys

Kenneth Elvebakk has crafted a documentary that celebrates the endurance and determination as well as the talent of a small group of boys who aspire to be ballet dancers.  This 2013 film follows three friends over the course of four years as they try to realise their jointly held ambition to enter the best ballet schools.

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At the centre is Lukas who, as it turns out, is the more talented of the three.  He has strong bonds with friends Syvert and Torgeir but the differing levels of application show through as the film develops.   Years of dedication to their art brings about moments of disappointment, one of them forgets his moves in a prestigious competition, as well as triumph.  All three want entry into Norway’s Ballet School but one has the opportunity to audition for the Royal Ballet in London, bringing about further doubts about whether he wants to move away from family and friends.  One has doubts about ballet and there is a break while he assesses his future.

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The saddest part of the film comes when Asian- Norwegian Syvert says to camera that he wishes he were more ‘Norwegian’.  There is little follow-up to this sad admission but it hangs in the air.

What comes across most strongly, though, is the lack of any concern about being a boy in the world of ballet.  Maybe, at this level, such concerns have long departed or maybe they exist in a more accepting society.  In any case, the story here is of growing up and friendship.  It is a short film that could have been longer but it is worth watching.

‘Ballet Boys’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Alone in Berlin

This 1947 novel from Hans Fallada celebrates the spirit of individuals who campaign against unjust regimes.  In this case the Nazi regime of Germany of the 30s and 40s is central to the story.  As in most totalitarian countries, free speech is restricted and any action which attacks the legitimacy of the state is treated harshly.  It is a brave man or woman, then, who acts against the prevailing mood or who dares to criticise.

Otto and Anna are an ‘ordinary’ couple who decide to do something extraordinary after they receive news of the death of their son who was fighting in the German army.  The futility of his death affects them both, especially as they are not Nazi supporters.  Otto decides to share his views about the dangerous course Germany is taking. His dangerous opinion of Hitler is also shared.  He writes postcards and leaves them in public places in the hope that they will be shared.  Doubts held privately might grow if people see that there are others who think and feel the same.

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The novel is built around this simple idea.  The police react immediately, any opposition must be crushed!  Otto and Anna continue their work despite knowing that their crime is a capital offence.  Many people who pick up the postcards are immediately scared that by even holding them, they are implicated in such a controversial activity; most immediately report the matter to the authorities.

It is a sign of the skill of the writer that, despite knowing that things must end badly, we hope that Otto and Anna will prevail.  Yet this is a story of the brave who dare to act in times when most people did not.  ‘For evil to flourish it only requires good men to do nothing’ as Simon Wiesenthal once said, maybe quoting Burke, the origins are unclear.

‘Alone in Berlin’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

To An Athlete Dying Young

This poem by A E Housman is another that resonates.  The theme of dying young with so much promise unfulfilled is a poignant one.  It was written at the end of the nineteenth century so it is little wonder that it became popular in the First World War.

To An Athlete Dying Young

The time you won your town the race,
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

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A E Housman

This poem by A E Housman returns to the subject of unrequited love.  The great love of his life was one of his room mates at Oxford, Moses Jackman.  Jackman, though, was not gay and did not appreciate being the object of Housman’s affection so tried to distance himself from him in later years; he did not invite him to his wedding and they did not continue as friends.  The pain of this rejection, understandable though it was given the time and circumstances, is reflected here.

He would not stay for me, and who can wonder?

He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.

I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,

And went with half my life about my ways.

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Because I Liked You

This poem by A E Housman is one of his romantic and melancholic poems made more poignant by the fact that the great love of his life was unrequited. Love is where it falls but the love he had for his friend from Oxford days caused more pain than pleasure.

Because I Liked You

Because I liked you better  
   Than suits a man to say,
It irked you, and I promised
   To throw the thought away.

To put the world between us
    We parted, stiff and dry;
‘Good-bye,’ said you, ‘forget me.’
   ‘I will, no fear’, said I.

If here, where clover whitens
    The dead man’s knoll, you pass,
And no tall flower to meet you
    Starts in the trefoiled grass,

Halt by the headstone naming
    The heart no longer stirred,
And say the lad that loved you
    Was one that kept his word.

A E Housman

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Taken at Midnight

This play by Mark Hayhurst brought to the surface a story from 30s Germany that might otherwise have been forgotten. Set in the early years of the Nazi regime, the play explores the consequences for a lawyer, and the people he shares his prison cell with, for speaking out against the brutality of the regime that has taken over Germany.

Hans Litten was a lawyer who called Hitler to appear in court in 1931 in a trial of four SA men accused of murder.  He questioned the Nazi leader and subjected him to a level of scrutiny that put him on the defensive.  No surprise to us, watching the play from this distance then to discover that Hitler had his revenge and, when established in 1933, Litten found himself in what was called ‘protective custody’.  He ended up in Dachau.BlogTakenMidnight

In this play his mother takes central stage, as it is her dignified campaign to find out where her son was being held, along with obvious questions such as why.  She has to cope with Dr Conrad of the Gestapo who seems to delight in his inability to help the poor mother due to the efficiency of the system in which he works.  The way he keeps just enough hope alive in the mother serves to highlight the cruelty at the heart of his operation.  Throughout, Frau Litten remains dignified and stoical.  Her husband, meanwhile, is more prepared to give the regime the benefit of the doubt and is a man who thinks it best to avoid trouble.

The most sinister character in the whole play, though, is the British aristocrat Lord Clifford Allen who responds to overtures from Frau Litten to help her son, only to make excuses for Hitler and to offer his admiration for what the Nazi regime has done for Germany.  He may be a pacifist of some renown but he is also keen to avoid upsetting the authorities.  Which, leaves the mother isolated in the end but determined nevertheless.  Her campaign continues while our sense that the ending is inevitable grows.

‘Taken at Midnight’ is a powerful play.  It is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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Oh What a Lovely War

I saw a version of this famous play at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton in the 70s.  I am too young to have seen the early 60s original but, at university in the early 80s, I acted in our own production.  Nothing I have acted in moved me as much as this did.  The version I saw as a teenager was interesting but did not speak to me the way it did just a few years later when I took a part in it.

It was at about the same time as the film ‘Gallipoli’ was released in the UK and the two experiences, theatrical and cinematic, had a profound effect on me.  I went to the Imperial War Museum in London to see the First World War exhibits and I created a reading list of all the books available at the time about the war.

So I was delighted to have tickets to see the revival of the Theatre Workshop production when it came to Bath.  As scene after scene reminds us of the stupidity of war perhaps the most telling is the one where the American, German, Swiss, French industrialists discuss matters with their English host.  Their biggest fear is that peace might break out and ruin their business empires.  As ordinary Germans, Frenchmen and British kill each other, it is a poignant reminder that behind every human tragedy there are people ready to make money.  This scene, above all others, emphasises the point being made throughout.

My largest musical memory from the 80s production was ‘Roses of Picardy’ sung by a friend.  Here, the lament at the end ‘When they ask us, we’ll never tell them’ was the most powerful.

‘Oh What a Lovely War’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?