Extract from A Time to Speak by Helen Lewis, Founder of Belfast Modern Dance Group

Helen Lewis was a student of dance in Prague when the Second World War intervened and was taken to a ghetto and further transported to a concentration camp and led out in great fear in death marches.  My main motivation in reading this book was her connection to dance and especially dance in Belfast for which she was honoured for in her lifetime and her spirit of survival, to survive the worst of circumstances.  The following extract particularly stood out for me,

“This in itself ws remarkable in the circumstances but what had taken place inside myself was miraculous.  I had forgotten the time and the place and I had even forgotten myself.  I hadn’t noticed that it had become quiet in the hall, that the other reharsals had stopped and that everyone was standing round watching… where there had been chaos, there was now a dance.  The girls were delighted, there was a burst of applause and shouting; the shouting became a refrain: Dance for us, please dance for us.

The trance held.  I took off my wooden shoes… and I danced.  I, dance with frostbitten feet?  I didn’t care or try to understand, I danced and that was enough.

Helen Lewis is honoured in the re-furbished Crescent Arts Centre as she contributed greatly to this organisation, with a dance studio in her name and a wall painting and quotation.  The dance studio is on the second floor and I suggest that if you in any way wonder about the effects of dance and the impact it can have on lives, please check this out and absorb what the quotation says.

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Ballet on the Box

I recently attempted to represent, in a blog, the differences between ballet and ballroom, as part of that, it was obvious that ballroom has become very media-friendly and as such, has seen its’ audience grow exponentially because of this exposure. This then led me to think about ballet’s relationship with the media. It is a fact that we live in a media age. Most Arts organisations have embraced the media to a greater or lesser extent and there have been a number of cinema runs and documentaries featuring some of the top companies, the Bolshoi at the QFT, Agony and Ecstasy featuring a year with the English National Ballet and a number of documentaries on the Royal Ballet and a big contribution from the Ballet Boyz. The social media explosion has changed Arts organisations and those that fully embrace it and realise that their audience goes beyond the theatre, there are so many people that cannot physically get to the theatre, or perceived social barriers but media is an extremely useful tool in breaking down these barriers. Ballet is such an intense art-form, one of the greatest on earth, there aren’t many that take so much discipline, turning bodies from their natural lethargy into something that embraces it’s beauty and strength but that is only the core, on top of that add musicality and theatricality of the highest level. In the digital age, you can add to the amazing attributes of dancers, that of being media-friendly. What personally first inspired me to become involved in ballet was seeing a documentary focusing on Darcey Bussell, it broke down some of the perceived barriers that I had, being that ballet was for posh people! and appreciating its’ grace and beauty for the first time. Television is a great medium for breaking down these perceived barriers.

Ballet is such an involved medium and its’ audience definitely benefit from knowing about and seeing the complexities of putting on a production, be it difficulties with choreography, getting the correct personnel which may come down to simple admin problems and funding performances on top of all this. Television shows how multi-layered ballet is and channels like BBC4 now exist with fabulous fly-on-the-wall documentaries and drama pieces such as Margot. Ballet has a fascinating history to draw upon and draw out and sensational characters who were stars of their day and set on pedestals, it is time to make them stars again to the majority of the public. My belief is that ballet has been slow to embrace its’ public and some of the interactions can be painful. To some, the film Black Swan, was the epitome of this intrusion into this sometimes closed World. The problem with Black Swan was that it focused on the negatives, solely, whilst largely disregarding the positives or taking every negative cliché and putting it into the film and following this up with largely disregarding the dancer that made Natalie Portman’s character look like the Principal Dancer that she was portraying and even passing Natalie Portman off as the finished article after one year’s training. The media-savvy organisations were able to make some nice little stories out of this, using it to promote their timely production of Swan Lake, the Royal Ballet were able to make much of calls to the Box Office from people asking when Natalie Portman was dancing, although, conversely, it was difficult for some dancers to hear her proclaimed from their very own stage in the Royal Opera House during the BAFTA Award Ceremony, as a Prima Ballerina but then, this was pre-Oscars and these sorts of shenanigans go on to secure this award and Hollywood lives in a bit of a skewed world of unreality, cosseting itself with massive budgets and egos.

However, I am of the belief that the publicity generated for ballet by this award-winning film was, on the whole, good. The majority of the public are aware that this was an extreme film that exaggerated and heightened the tension in the ballet world and most of what we see in the film is the product of a disturbed and fevered mind that had little to do with truth. There aren’t many other professions that would have been as appropriate because people care intensely about ballet. It was then up to ballet dancers to redress any untruths by doing what they do best and also by presenting the alternative through media exposure and getting rid of some deep-rooted prejudices and negative images, such as that ballet is full of overly-competitive petty jealousies, into the truth that ballet dancers are perfectly normal people with an extraordinary job borne out of their amazing talent and hard work. Ballet has the potential to delight and amaze and is not just stuck in the 1800’s but there is a wealth of modern choreographic talent producing works of note to satisfy the media-savvy generation such as Sky Arts’ Ballet Rocks which has the feel of a pop video but very much classical ballet with traditional pointe shoes which to myself is one of the most important basics of ballet that draws the eye and finishes off the clean, strong lines of dancers. Sky Arts is a champion of ballet and I’ve managed to catch a number of these programmes. They mainly focus on a dancer or event or company. I’ve recently viewed a documentary on a dancer coming from a life of real poverty in a tiny village in Cambodia and transferring to New York and then North West Pacific Ballet. The programme charted the transformation from a rural village in a country still recovering from the ravages of civil-war to the bright lights of New York. The culture and traditional dance were so distinctive but the dancer commentated throughout and it was interesting to hear about the transformation of not only his body but his psyche to that of a ballet dancer, especially mastering partnering which was altogether alien. I am particularly excited to see that this channel will show the amazing Northern Ballet and their preparations for current production, Beauty and the Beast. However, channels such as Sky Arts, BBC4 and More4 are still niche channels and to some extent BBC2 who will show ballet from time to time. It would be nice to see a prime-time slot for ballet and become event television. The last two series of So You Think You Can Dance have featured ballet dancers and some of the men in the first series made it to the final and I would love to see the return of ballet to the professional dances on Strictly as I feel that the choreography and dances do not have enough variety or sheer jaw-dropping-ness!

Looking behind ballet makes me appreciate and enjoy more and more the finished performance. Live ballet is the pinnacle but in those long periods whilst waiting for the next live performance, being able to turn to various media outlets to feed my appetite for ballet is essential. Television is fair and equitable in that we have access to it here in Northern Ireland, cinema coverage can be patchy, except for the QFT who are a major supporter of the Arts and operates an innovative programme, encompassing not just ballet but live theatre feeds too. The nature of this cinema allows more arts programming and caters for this particular audience, often scheduling dance films. A recent example of this is ongoing commitment to the arts and one of their finest is the live link-up with the Bolshoi with months of ballet programming. To accompany a recent Scottish Ballet live performance, a documentary/ short film was screened and senior staff present to answer questions. The Royal Ballet launched to much fanfare, re-tweeting and hash-tags, their own cinema season with OdeonPlus Culture (Belfast is not always included in these viewings) and New York City Ballet have been shown in the Odyssey cinema. This is likely to be our only chance to see these world-leading companies in Northern Ireland. Hopefully, there will be plenty of big-screen action coming up with the Cultural Olympiad that sees the UK’s professional Ballet Companies – Scottish and English National Ballet and National Ballet Company of Wales. I’m also hoping that Northern Ireland will have dance firmly included in its’ cultural programme surrounding the Olympics. I look forward to more and more interactions between media outlets and ballet and hope to see Northern Ireland media taking a greater interest in our ballet stars.