Northern Ballet prides itself on being a pioneer in contemporary narrative ballet. However, in adapting The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne’s controversial 2006 Holocaust novel, which was made into a movie by Mark Herman in 2008) the company has made an enormous misstep.
Boyne’s book famously (or infamously, if one is so inclined) tells the tale of Bruno, the nine-year-old son of a Nazi commandant, and Shmuel, the Jewish boy of the same age who Bruno befriends through the wire fence of the extermination camp at a fictionalised Auschwitz. Due to a series of mishaps, Bruno ultimately ends up dying alongside Shmuel in a gas chamber.
It is hard to disagree with the novel’s detractors, such as New York-based Rabbi Benjamin Blech, who has described it as a “blatant distortion” and a “profanation”. There were, as Blech points out, no nine-year-old children held in Auschwitz (those below working age were murdered on arrival), and, even more importantly, the idea that any Auschwitz prisoner could have conducted a friendship through the perimeter fence of the camp is a ludicrous and indefensible lie.
Of course Boyne, Herman and, for that matter, Northern Ballet choreographer Daniel de Andrade can claim the right to artistic freedom. However, that freedom does not erase the crassness and vulgarity of the story, which are, if anything, magnified by being transposed into dance.
One watches in open-mouthed incomprehension as Andrade offers a series of grotesque parodies. A choreography for the forcing of Jews into the cattle trucks that would carry them to the death camp is nauseatingly cartoonish.
In Auschwitz, the Nazis dance in choreographies inspired by goose-steps and stiff-armed salutes, while the prisoners’ movements are limp with hunger. In the novel, Bruno childishly mishears the phrase “the Führer” as “the Fury”. This gives rise to Andrade’s most striking innovation, a demonic figure who seems like a cross between Darth Vader and the wicked fairy Carabosse. Danced well by Mlindi Kulashe on Friday night, this horseman of the apocalypse is, at once, too mythical and too disconcertingly sensual to be credible in the context of a Holocaust narrative.
Like its literary and cinematic forebears, this ballet is, no doubt, well-intentioned. More even than them, however, it is outrageously insensitive and misconceived.
Ends at Cast, Doncaster, Saturday, May 27, then touring until October 21: northernballet.com