Northern Ballet’s dancers are in fine form this year. Following the success of the world première tour of Casanova, they are currently on the road with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – a new full-length narrative ballet based on John Boyne’s 2006 Holocaust novel.
The Irish writer’s international bestseller tells the heart-wrenching tale of a friendship between two nine-year-old boys living a strange parallel existence during the Second World War. Bruno is a German boy; the son of a Nazi officer promoted to the position of Commandant at a fictionalised Auschwitz concentration camp. Cossetted by his family, Bruno is oblivious to the appalling cruelties being inflicted on the people of Europe by his country. All he knows is that he has been relocated from his familiar home in Berlin to a lonely house in the middle of nowhere in Poland. Here, there is nothing to do and no one to play with. At least, there isn’t until Bruno befriends Shmuel, a Jewish boy imprisoned at Auschwitz, through the barbed wire fence of the camp. As Bruno and Shmuel’s unlikely friendship flourishes, the full implications of Bruno’s father’s job as Commandant are exposed. Familial discord inevitably ensues before the harrowing conclusion reveals how, through misadventure, Bruno ends up dying with Shmuel in the gas chamber.
Although the premise of Boyne’s story is emotive and engaging, both the book and the subsequent 2008 film by Mark Herman received mixed reviews. This is due to the implausibility that any concentration camp prisoner could ever have engaged in a friendship with an outsider. Furthermore, the reality is that children below working age were typically murdered immediately upon their arrival at Auschwitz. Nonetheless, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is an affecting account of wartime turmoil as seen through a child’s eyes. Significantly, Northern Ballet’s production, devised and choreographed by Artistic Associate Daniel de Andrade, stays true to the book, confidently using dance to capture the drama of forbidden friendship and family conflict.
Northern Ballet always seems to get playful, youthful choreography just right and the character of Bruno is no exception. In translating The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas from words on a page to dance on a stage, capturing Bruno’s wide-eyed innocence through movement is an obvious necessity. After all, the whole story is conveyed from his perspective as a child. An audience of adults, aware of the horrors of the tale’s historical setting, is too informed to passively watch events unfold. Instead, we focus on Bruno – his encounters, his reactions, his choices. Fortunately, Daniel de Andrade’s choreography for Bruno is spirited, with an abundance of athletic and airborne moments to demonstrate his boyish energy. There are plenty of classical ballet steps but the addition of inverted and contracted contemporary dance moves gives the character an impish edge as he fluctuates from hopeful exuberance to times of bewilderment and petulance.
Junior soloist Kevin Poeung is quite the pocket rocket in this role. Vaulting skywards with beaten jumps and soaring leaps, he hovers mid-air with an untroubled and unhurried ease before darting into the next movement phrase. Juxtaposed against Bruno’s buoyancy and blissful ignorance, the character of Shmuel has an obvious heaviness in his heart. Shmuel is drained by captivity; his movement hindered by the weight of his plight. Dancer Luke Francis pitches his understated performance as Shmuel perfectly. Weary and limp while carting a wheelbarrow about, Francis convincingly portrays both Shmuel’s ghastly reality and his childlike ability to bounce back and revive some semblance of a carefree boyhood while frolicking with Bruno.
The friendship through the fence is, as one would expect, a highlight in this production and yet the amount of time devoted to it seems curtailed. Bruno does not meet Shmuel until the end of Act One and the pace of Act Two requires that their bond is presented with restricted scope for development. Despite this, the scenes with just these two characters provide fluid, well-executed dancing and captivating storytelling. Bruno and Shmuel fool around together, mirroring each other’s movements and delighting in their naive camaraderie. During these passages, the stage is flooded with light and the fence, which divides the duo, drifts upwards until it disappears. Momentarily, against the backdrop of war and persecution, humanity and hope prevail.
Of course, a happy ending is never going to be possible in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and de Andrade’s scenario ensures we have a constant reminder of the evil individual responsible for the mass genocide. The shadowy character listed in the programme as “The Fury” is a phantom-like reflection of Adolf Hitler (in the novel Bruno childishly mispronounces “The Führer” as “The Fury”), wearing a shredded black bodysuit and hiding behind a gas mask. This sinister figure stalks and slithers across the stage in a way that makes him seem almost like a long-lost relative of the wicked fairy Carabosse. Unfortunately, this is not always to the production’s advantage. Although inclusion of this character means that the omnipresence of the Nazi Party’s leader is personified, it sometimes feels unnecessarily theatrical in an otherwise naturalistic representation.
Still, this is de Andrade’s artistic interpretation and the choreography for The Fury is impressively physical. Acrobatics; floor work; clambering on furniture – he certainly gets about. Leading soloist Giuliano Contadini is menacing and commanding in the role, manipulating the players onstage and leaving a lasting impression among those of us in the auditorium.
Astute characterisation is probably this production’s greatest strength. Appealing dance content and execution makes sure that Bruno and Shmuel are convincingly portrayed, although there is no avoiding the fact that it does become more difficult to believe the dancers are children when they appear alongside the adult characters. Nevertheless, when it is just the boys onstage – or just Bruno and his thirteen-year-old sister Gretel (soloist Rachael Gillespie is positively effervescent as the haughty teenager on the cusp of womanhood) – the quality of youthful unworldliness is spot on.
Designer Mark Bailey’s sets are sparse but successful and Tim Mitchell’s lighting is atmospheric and narrative-driven. The music is a mixture of folk rhythms and atonal classical notes. This is a somewhat jarring, droning soundscape. Composer Gary Yershon seems to have chosen this style for its haunting, plaintive mood and it does resonate with the story. However, such minimal variety throughout a full-length work makes it more of a challenge for an audience to be attracted to the score.
This production plays to Northern Ballet’s strengths by making the most of its artists’ diversity and dynamism. The decision to give smaller male dancers in the company opportunities to thrive in the parts of Bruno and Shmuel is commendable, as are the continued efforts to transform works from popular literature into innovative dance productions.
As a contemporary ballet company, Northern Ballet prides itself on challenging perceptions of what stories can be told through dance. The company undoubtedly tells the story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but the production does not seem as wholly absorbing as I have come to expect from Northern Ballet. This is through no fault of the dancers themselves, or, indeed, the choreography. Perhaps the unlikelihood of the story; the complications in having adults dance as children and the speed with which events must unfold onstage makes it harder for an audience to become fully invested?
Ultimately, telling the story of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas through dance is a brave move and the dancers do perform beautifully. This is a big year for Northern Ballet, with an unprecedented three world premières in the space of twelve months. Casanova was superb, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a pleasing second offering and the final one waiting in the wings is The Little Mermaid. Every production cannot be the best but I applaud Northern Ballet for taking these chances and keenly reinvigorating its repertoire.
*Publicity photography by Guy Farrow. Production photography by Emma Kauldhar.
Age guidance: suitable for young people in secondary school and up.
Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas continues its tour with performances in Stoke-On-Trent and Bromley this month, before returning to Yorkshire in the autumn.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.