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Dark and light

14 March 2014

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THE First Sunday of Lent, with its themes of temptation, and the tussle between good and evil, provided a surprisingly appropriate context for Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake (BBC4, Thursday of last week).

Far more keen on opera than ballet, I was unprepared for how absorbing I would find the English National Ballet's artistic director, Tamara Rojo's, account of how she prepares for this most demanding of all roles. (She describes dancing first Odette, then Odile, then once more Odette as similar to performing Juliet in Act I, Lady Macbeth in Act II, then Juliet in Act III.)

She also gave a potted history of the work's inception, and, most importantly, its performance history. Apparently, the basic steps and moves have been pretty much fixed for more than a century; what marks out one production or performance against others are details of emphasis, technical grace, and psychological insight.

As Odette/Odile, the prima ballerina has to dance and express both doomed innocence and purity, and also the exact opposite: calculation, wickedness, evil. The characters are not only an example of the 19th-century Romantic obsession with doubles, but also present the dark side of the same individual.

It is an acting out of the eternal struggle between good and evil. I was particularly struck by one sequence, in which she talked through the significance of each gesture as she danced a pas de deux with the Prince: each detail added up to a complex psychological narrative of attraction-rejection-reconciliation. Rojo was the most disarmingly open guide, unlocking mysteries I had never previously appreciated.

I watched this with my imagination still touched by a previous BBC4 documentary, Dancing in the Blitz: How World War Two made British ballet (Wednesday of last week), which turned a spotlight on a fascinating aspect of the last great war: how the conflict honed and refined Dame Ninette de Valois's company into a national institution, and, in the darkest days of the war, provided sell-out audiences with a glimpse of culture, beauty, and hope.

The most dramatic sequence told how they were touring Holland at the very moment when the Germans invaded: they finally escaped on the second-to-last boat to leave. Archive film, and powerful interviews with the few survivors from the company, reminded us of the deprivation and discomfort of touring during the Blitz, blackouts, and rationing.

They were always uncomfortable, hungry, and exhausted, and their eventual post-war triumph, moving into Covent Garden to become the Royal Ballet company, seemed appropriate reward for years of devoted sacrifice.

The Sky At Night (BBC4, Sunday) had an intriguing subject: listening to the noise made by the stars. Because there is nothing in the gaps between heavenly bodies, there is no medium for sound waves to reach us; so we cannot hear anything. But we can translate the electronic signals they transmit back into sounds, which, in turn, reveal new information about the internal structure and processes of the stars. We can now hear no less than the music of the spheres.

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