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Monday 28 January 2019

The tortoise and the tutu

Ballet needs to find new audiences. It is aiming young.

By Catherine Nixey

To say there was an expectant hush as the Northern Ballet’s latest production began would be to overstate the matter.

As the opening bars of Tortoise & the Hare struck up there was, however, a definite diminution in the rattling of sweet packets and a palpable sense of excitement. Most audience members managed to sit, if not quite still in their seats, then at least to sit down in them. One audience member squealed.

Then the lights dimmed. Not to universal approval. “It’s dark,” hissed one child in a stage whisper. “I’m scared.” Everyone’s a critic. And, when most of the audience is under ten, everyone tends to be a loud critic.

It is roughly 2,500 years since Aesop wrote his version of the fable in which brains and staying power beat brawn. Now Northern Ballet, which is putting on a series of children’s fables including Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks & the Three Bears, has transformed the fable into a ballet. Its is a largely traditionalist take on the legend. It uses a reading  of the story as an outer narrative shell to frame the action (if one can apply such word to a tortoise’s creep), which is then told in ballet form.

This weekend was the first time that Northern Ballet have attempted cinema showings for young audiences – but the targeting of this demographic is not unusual. English National Ballet offers the “My First Ballet” series in which standard ballets are cut down to child-size portions. Scottish Ballet has its “wee” ballet series which offers similar. All are trying to hook new audiences while they are young.

Because there is, among some, a feeling that this art form is about as healthy as Odette in Scene IV.  Unfairly. In the UK figures show that attendance has remained steady for the past ten years or so. Nonetheless, newspaper headlines have, for years, hinted that it is something of a cinderella art form. “Ballet? Never heard of it” one Wall Street Journal headline sniffed. Last year the examinations director at the Royal Academy of Dance said that there had been a “steady decline” in examination entrances for the form and that ballet was “losing out” to other dance forms. Children were keen to shine as stars but couldn’t be bothered with the graft and discipline to make their toes twinkle in this most demanding of disciplines.

The young viewers at today’s showing seem to be enthusiastic. They also, despite their youth, seem to be expecting a traditional approach to the tale. Few of the audience have come expecting a revisionist version. Ruby, 9, thinks that the hare “thinks he’s so fast but the tortoise wins”. Ariana, 6, is also backing the tortoise. Less because she believes in the value of stealth and persistence than because tortoises are “funny and they’re cute”. However there is some dissent. Seth, 2, is certain that “the hare rabbit will win. Big legs. Boing.”

In the two and a half millennia since Aesop (or the artist formerly known as Aesop – much of what was once “known” about this author is now largely relegated, appositely enough, to the realm of fable) wrote these stories down the narrative has, unlike the tortoise, moved rapidly. The basic storyline has found its way into everything from a philosophical puzzle on the question of infinity (Zeno’s second paradox) to  advice for lovers (“perseverance winneth”), as an analogy of capitalism and, finally, a Disney film.

One of the oddest versions is the typically gothic version from the Brothers Grimm. In it, the hare is challenged to a race by a surly hedgehog (animals metamorphose as well as plots and morals). Determined to win the bottle of brandy that is the prize, the hedgehog orders his wife to come and act as his body double. When the hare approaches the finishing line, she pops up. The hare, flummoxed, races the hedgehog back to the other end – and finds he is already there. This trick is repeated 73 times until, on the 74th time, the hare, “in the middle of the field, with blood flowing from his neck… fell dead to the ground”. A lesson to us all.

There is no hare haemorrhage in the Northern Ballet version, though admittedly there are some modernisations. Hare (Luke Francis) is not in minimalist Greek clothes but in GDR-style running shorts, wristbands and a bandana. Choreographer Dreda Blow has given him a general air of impatience last modelled by John McEnroe circa 1981.

As the play opens, Hare performs jetes on legs like planed wood before the tortoise (Gavin McCaig) has even got out of bed. No matter. Benjamin Franklin’s tedious aphorism about being early to rise might have won over the world but tortoises know better. Slower can be wiser.

There are, admittedly, moments that Aesop wouldn’t fully recognise as his own. Tortoise has a mask that looks a little like a slightly scalier version of Voldemort. There is a music-hall style interlude from two rabbits in boaters and braces. The whole thing concludes with a heart-warming section in which the tortoise and the hare make friends – an alien concept to a writer as salty as Aesop.

Despite such narrative liberties, the audience seems delighted. And indeed even those who had been sceptics beforehand find themselves converted. As the ballet reached its climax, Seth turns to his mother to whisper, “No, I think you’re right mummy. The turtle is going to win.”

Naturally. Slow and steady wins the race.