A ballet about the Shoah — for teens

Joy Sable reports on Northern Ballet's new production, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas


Are there any subjects completely off limits for ballet? For an audience fed a diet of swans and sylphs, a ballet based on the horrors of the Holocaust might, literally, be a step too far. So a trip to see the new work by Northern Ballet’s artistic associate Daniel de Andrade, based on John Boyne’s book for children The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas promises to be a challenging and thought-provoking night out.

It is not the first time the Holocaust has provided inspiration for a choreographer: Valley of Shadows, created in 1983 by Sir Kenneth MacMillan and based on the novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani, contained several scenes in a concentration camp. De Andrade’s ballet is set on a smaller scale, and has its premiere this week in Doncaster, before touring around the country.

Wanting to create something for teenage audiences, the Brazilian choreographer originally thought of adapting The Diary of Anne Frank. He turned to The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas when Northern Ballet’s artistic director David Nixon suggested he read the novel.

“Because it is seen through a child’s eyes, it carries that innocence all the way through,” says De Andrade. “There is another very practical reason that I chose The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: we have some very talented young men in the company who have been with us for a while but they are not as tall as the average Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty prince. As good as they are, they don’t get to do leads in our ballets, so David thought it was a brilliant opportunity to use the main roles of Shmuel and Bruno to highlight the talent we have in the company.”

De Andrade is acutely aware that the subject matter may offend people and he has ensured his dancers have had time to study what happened during the Nazi regime. “The whole company has researched the story very well. As much as we can’t bring the horrors true to life in a space of 10 metres by 10 metres, every artist on stage has to understand the responsibility of what we are trying to portray, be respectful and be mindful of the fact that we don’t want to over-romanticise anything. Even though it is a work of fiction, it is referencing a turning point in history.”

When first published, the book attracted a lot of criticism, which De Andrade acknowledges. “The main criticism is that the two little boys developing that level of friendship would not have been possible. I’m not the one to disagree with that. I also read John Boyne’s explanation that he didn’t write it as a historical book. It is a work of fiction, a fable. But it doesn’t take away the responsibility of us depicting it in the truest manner that we can.”

Northern Ballet’s dancers are classically trained, but have had to adapt to a more contemporary style for this piece. “You can’t depict the inner turmoil of people and some of the violent scenes just with linear classical ballet.

“The choreography has had to go through many layers of different types of movement, and contemporary movement is a strong presence in what we’ve done — yes, it was challenging! The music [by Oscar-nominated composer Gary Yershon] is very complex anyway — it is very distorted and uncomfortable.”

Work on the ballet has left its mark on De Andrade. “When you create a ballet it goes round in your head for months on end. This particular one has become so enriching. I’m learning what happened in history. I’m going into details of things I didn’t know about: how the camp was built and how the intelligence of the Nazi mind was so meticulous in the evil it was perpetrating; it is almost overwhelming. You can’t even comprehend the level of suffering and loss, and for me that’s the lesson that I’ve taken from it.

“One of the main reasons I wanted to develop this subject into a ballet is that the patterns of human behaviour that led to the atrocities of the Holocaust are still around. War makes less of us all. For that reason I felt compelled to bring this subject to a dance audience.”

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is on tour until 21 October.

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