The Holocaust has provided inspiration for novelists, film directors — and choreographers. Last year, Northern Ballet performed The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, based on the children’s book of the same name. Now Ballet Central, a company made up of 18-year-old students in their final year at the Central School of Ballet, is touring with excerpts from Valley of Shadows, Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s controversial ballet, first performed in 1983.
Inspired by Georgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, about the fate of an Italian Jewish family under the Nazis, the ballet’s merits were hotly debated on its debut. Was it appropriate to attempt to show the horrors of concentration camps in the lush surrounds of the Royal Opera House? The ballet’s beauty and power were never in question, but it aroused strong feelings and Valley of Shadows was performed only three times at Covent Garden.
Lady Deborah MacMillan, Sir Kenneth’s widow, is, with her daughter, custodian of all his works and says she would love to see it performed again: “However, I suspect that the Royal Opera House is still nervous of the subject matter although Kenneth based the ballet on a literary classic. I do know that Marghanita Laski, who was on the board of the ROH when the ballet was premiered, thought the subject matter was inappropriate for ballet — something that happened all through Kenneth’s working life.
This time she was approached by Christopher Marney , the artistic director of Ballet Central, via Monica Mason a former Director of the Royal Ballet. She agreed to the student production, with various conditions attached. “I let bona fide ballet schools perform excerpts of Kenneth’s work, out of context for no charge to me…This gives the students a flavour of work not in their curriculum.”
So exactly 35 years after its premiere, Ballet Central opened a nationwide tour in March with two excerpts from Valley of Shadows’ “garden” scenes.
“I wanted to give the students the experience of working on something from that great choreographer, but also something that matched the ethos of Central, which is to become a dance actor – not just to concentrate on the technique of dance, but to be a person on stage, rather than just a body,” says Marney.
Recreating even a short episode from the ballet proved challenging. “There was only one rehearsal archive film of the ballet that exists, and very little notation. A performance was never filmed, which was such a shame. It was almost like recreating a lost ballet. We pieced it together through photographs, through the rehearsal footage that was filmed and by trips to the Opera House where we looked at old costume designs and materials that still existed. The choreography was unchanged and the designs were kept as the originals, but remade so that we could portray a true version of what Kenneth would have wanted.”
The students also had the advantage of being coached by original cast members Alessandra Ferri and Guy Niblett. “It was an incredible experience for us,” says Marney. “Alessandra had a strong association with the ballet. It had had such a powerful effect on her that not only was she very keen to work with the students, but also to give some of the information she remembered from the research she did into the Holocaust and also the comments she remembered from Kenneth.”
“Kenneth always researched at length the subject matter he was tackling, both with a view to really understanding it and for help with the choice of appropriate music. He was extremely widely read,” says Lady MacMillan.
Ballet Central’s dancers also looked at background material. “We did a lot of research online about young people’s experiences during the Holocaust, so we read a few testimonials,” says Marney. “The excerpt we show takes place early on — 1940. What was important for me was that we skipped ahead and showed them the horrors of what their lives would have become, a year, two, three years later. We were looking at quite harrowing footage because I wanted them to understand not just the happiness they were having in the garden, but what their lives were going to become.
“It is such a powerful work. It is important history and is not a message that should be kept hidden or off the stage. The dancers have really been given a gift in this ballet and it is something very special that is going to stay with them for a long time.”
For details of Ballet Central’s tour 2018, visit www.balletcentral.co.uk