Dancing on TV: it’s a riot

spiked-TV: Strictly Come Dancing is fun but dance is capable of provoking much greater passions.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

It’s funny the things you find on Dr Who discussion boards. On unitnews, a long-established fansite, there were pages upon pages of fans urging other fans to phone in their vote to ITV’s Dancing on Ice for John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack Harkness in the recent revival of Dr Who.

Dancing on Ice is ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing. Strictly teamed celebs with professional ballroom dancers: they learnt to cha-cha-cha with the best of them, got the Pop Idol-style dressing down by a panel of dance experts, and then faced the ‘you-at-home’ audience vote. Dancing on Ice follows exactly the same format but with the added interest of – you guessed it – ice.

To be fair Barrowman, the David Hasselhoff of sci-fi, not only put the ice to shame with the dazzling sparkle of his smile, but was really rather good. So fine were his moves during one of the early programmes I was tempted to do something that I haven’t done in years: vote. My fingers twitched near the phone and then – I don’t know – I must have got distracted during the adverts.

But what if I had voted? Would I have added to the froth of despair/excitement about the fact that more people – particularly young people – vote in Big Brother/Pop Idol/X-Factor/Strictly Come Dancing/Dancing on Ice than seem bothered to turn out for the Little-Frampton-on-Curling by-election? The popularity of these shows with ‘voters’, compared to their apathy when it comes to real politics, has eaten through more column inches and report pages than is sensible, including a Hansard Report in 2003 entitled A Tale of Two Houses that wrung its hands as it declared: ‘The Big Brother house attracts millions of younger viewers and voters while the House of Commons leaves them cold.’

That report focused on the differences between political junkies (PJs) and Big Brother fans (BBs) in a bid to unlock the secret of the popular vote and turn the tide of political disengagement. But all of this is nonsense, surely? The reason why my hand was tingling near the telephone receiver to vote for the utter fluff of a shallow TV show is because I know it is utter fluff and shallow and that nothing is really at stake in that vote. It’s like, you know, a bit of fun, not politics.

And for all the focus groups and surveys on the ‘Pop Idol generation’ and politics, I think the reason that millions who have never been within 20 metres of a ballot box voted for Shayne Ward is that they too know, in their heart of hearts, that the X-Factor is fluff, but they watch it because it is good fun. Most of us know the difference between politics and George Galloway.

What’s of more interest in the whole vote-for-the-best-dancer phenomenon is the way that dance is packaged today. The focus is on doing something dazzling but the effect is to sterilise the messy but bold business of critical judgement. It wasn’t like this in the old days: they cared so much about the art they had riots and everything.

Not that the riot in BBC 2’s very enjoyable Riot at the Rite was much of a riot as riots go. But the actual recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet that caused a riot when it was first performed in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Elysée, was thrilling.

The rehearsal scenes saw Adam Garcia as Nijinsky perform the obligatory and cringeworthy tortured-genius-kicks-chair-over routine. But things certainly picked up once Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes roll up at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysée. Integral to the success of the drama is the recreation of the ballet in full by the Finnish National Ballet. There are few surviving notes of Nijinsky’s choreography and the Finnish company includes the recreated choreography in its repertoire, based on a reconstruction by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. The subject of some controversy itself, the recreated choreography is shown almost in its entirety and god alone knows what the Strictly Come Dancing vote would make of it. With its odd and ugly bent-limbed choreography that strangely unnerves and exhilarates at the same time, it’s not the sort of thing that you could easily vote on. That’s the thing about art.

The real challenge of the work as a whole comes across clearly in Kevin Elyot’s screenplay: from the strange primeval tale of tribal rites, exemplified in Nicholas Roerich’s Slavic folklore costumes, to the jarring polyrhythms of Stravinsky’s score. The belief in a work that broke all the rules is grippingly conveyed by Nijinsky standing on a chair in the wings and physically straining to count the dancers in on Stravinsky’s score as it is almost drowned out by the din in the auditorium.

As the action switches between the stage and the ruckus in the audience, the excitement of the challenge that art can throw down to its own tradition is heightened not diminished. Elyot’s script makes it quite clear that the riot is not a question of the beautiful-but-misunderstood aesthetes on stage and a philistine mob in the audience. From all quarters fights break out between the ‘bravos’ of those who see something new and challenging in the work and the ‘boos’ of those who see it as an aesthetic travesty. There is humour here, too. The audience divide is captured in the sparring of a husband and wife: his interjections of ‘rubbish’ are punctuated by her surprised exclamations of ‘I rather like it’.

Riot at the Rite succeeds because it captures not just the passion and vision of the creators of The Rite of Spring, but because it shows the way in which that passion and vision spills out into an audience to enrage and inspire others. Colin Jackson may be a mean fox-trotter on Strictly Come Dancing but the show’s ability to inspire ends with picking up the phone. What passes for politics today doesn’t even inspire most of us to even pick up the phone.

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