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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

An art is born

By Norman Lebrecht / January 11, 2006

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The cultural year begins as it always does with a wallowing in centenaries, ever a limp excuse for celebration. There is no particular reason to play more Mozart and Ibsen this year than any other, except that one was born in 1756 and the other died in 1906 and we happen to count in decimals, a human anatomical peculiarity. If we had six fingers on each hand, we would mark 60ths as jubilees and ignore centenaries. The anniversary bash is, all too often, a cover-up for indifferent artistic planning.

Still, every now and then a clash of anniversaries throws up a coincidence of ideas that contributes to our grasp of art. It is 150 years, come March, since the fifth Earl of Stanhope succeeded at the third attempt in persuading Parliament to set up a National Portrait Gallery 'of those persons who are most honourably commemorated in British history' and, on the passing of his bill, nobly donated a family heirloom: the so-called Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare (attributed to John Taylor) which is numbered NPG1 to this day in the gallery's catalogue.

A cavalcade of exhibitions will commemorate the NPG birthday year, first among them - opening on January 14 - a photographic display of the founders of British ballet, an art that came institutionally into being with the creation of the Vic-Wells (now the Royal Ballet) in 1931. A nod of acknowledgement from one art to another is always a pleasant thing, but there is more at play behind these pictures than is evident from mere display.

For what really happened in1931 is that two art forms came into being at pretty much the same time. Ballet began in Britain, four years after the death of Serge Diaghilev, as a fusion of the audience he had stimulated, the vacuum he had left and the driving ambitions of two ex-troupers Ninette de Valois and Lydia Lopokova who, married to the towering economist Maynard Keynes, gave ballet a foundation in practical realities. Within five years, and without a penny of public subsidy, the Sadlers Wells company was debt-free. Within two decades, Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton had made it world famous.

As ballet picked up momentum, photographers began using it as a canvas on which to make their names and, more significantly, turn their craft into art. A 1930 tableau of Lopokova dancing with Ashton and the Mancunian virtuoso Harold Turner was one of Cecil Beaton's earliest successes. Angus McBean, the first snapper to bring an eye for surrealism to celebrity portraits, cut his eye-teeth on the ballet. Paul Tanqueray, London's youngest and most fashionable photographer, joined the throng at the stage door. Inside the dressing rooms was Gordon Anthony, brother of Ninette de Valois, using privileged access to capture moments of intimacy and splendour.

Anthony, more than any publicist, promoted the ballet as a design statement. His 1937 portrait of his sister, formidably dictatorial against a chequered backdrop, was both an awestruck tribute and a black-white metaphor of her certainties. McBean's 1941 shot of Ashton, head at 45-degrees to his vertical hand, smoke curling from a cigarette, is another such moment; the fragile choreographer was about to be pressed into uniform.

It was the eloquence of works like these that established photography in conservative British minds as an independent art form, a full generation after it was recognised as such in France and Germany. The camera had been around a long time ö the NPG has plates dating back to 1839 ö but its function was seen as chiefly documentary. It was with the 1930s and the coming of ballet that photography acquired status and value in British society.

Beaton, McBean an Anthony were young men on the make, not much older than the dancers. Envying their intrusion, London's long-established studios rushed in to work with the dance. A haunting still-life of Constant Lambert, musical genius and first lover of Fonteyn, was made by Yvonne Gregory who, with her husband Bertram Park, ran a snooty studio on Dover Street. The pride of the new exhibition is a set of mostly unpublished ballet portraits by Bassano, Royal Photographer of Dover Street, spotted recently as a job-lot of plate-glass negatives at a provincial auction and bought for the NPG by the art dealer John Morton Morris.

Bassano snapped Fonteyn at 15, wide-eyed and unknowing; he caught Lopokova while she was being stalked by Keynes, and Pavlova, doyenne of the dying swans, in sedate retirement at Ivy House, her Golders Green mansion.

What drew these cameras to the ballet rather than to the starrier stages of theatre and opera is beyond ready explanation. The attraction of the new is obvious and there was clearly a buzz about the ballet during the 1930s ö not just the de Valois company, but its rivals Marie Rambert and the Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova pairing.

There was also an economic imperative. After the Wall Street Crash business dried up for society snappers and they were forced to seek new subjects. Ballet fans wanted prints to hang. The market responded accordingly.

But the key attraction for photographers, I suspect, was inherent to the art. A dancer could hold a pose far longer than any actor or singer. Exposure could be set to a minute or more without a flicker from the sitter. The act of photography found an echo in the disciplines of dance as they walked hand in hand into art history.

Not all of the NPG portraits are of exceptional quality and the absence of Baron, the most prolific of ballet photographers, is perplexing. But any qualms are overridden by the sudden and exhilarating realisation that here were two arts being born as one, each clambering upon the shoulders of the other to reach the next level of attainment.

If no man is an island, neither is an art. And if there is one lesson to be learned from the momentous collaboration of ballet and photography it is that no art form cannot afford to exist in glorious isolation. Ballet, in the present day, has lost much of its dialogue with the progressive visual arts, which have raced into post-modernism and beyond. It risks getting left behind unless it can, once more, find a willing partner in another art and achieve a synchronous rebirth.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001