WhyBrit­ney: The Bal­let is ac­tu­ally a Greek tragedy for high­brows

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic bboyd@irish­times.ie

When Richard Thomas com­posed and scored Jerry Springer: The Opera, he wasn’t quite sure whether Springer was some­one who merely held up a mir­ror to Amer­i­can so­ci­ety or was in fact com­plicit in its de­base­ment through his pop­u­lar TV show. In the end, Thomas spent most of time pro­tect­ing his stage show from “shocked and ou­traged” Chris­tians who thought the whole thing blas­phe­mous.

Thomas has no am­biva­lence about the sub­ject of his new high-art-meets-low-art ven­ture. Melt­down is a bal­let about the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of Brit­ney Spears. “My heart bleeds for her,” says Thomas of the trou­bled singer. “She played ev­ery­thing per­fect, did ev­ery­thing right and what fright­ens me is this Schaden­freude-y glee in her demise.”

Al­ready dubbed Brit­ney: The Bal­let, Melt­down opened in Lon­don’s Queen El­iz­a­beth Hall last week. The per­for­mance, by the Ram­bert Dance Com­pany, was strictly a one-off while those be­hind the show de­cide whether to roll it out on a Jerry Springer level. All con­cerned are un­der­stand­ably wary that they are deal­ing with a real per­son whose present state of health is much in the head­lines.

De­spite the nov­elty as­pect of Melt­down, Spears’s life and times are per­fect for phys­i­cal theatre. This is a wo­man who more or less pred­i­cated her ca­reer on her raunchy dance rou­tines. Melt­down’s chore­og­ra­pher, Hu­bert Es­sakow, views the Brit­ney story “a mod­ern day tragedy. I be­came fas­ci­nated by the fact that we are fas­ci­nated with her. You can’t open a news­pa­per with­out her be­ing in it. I be­came ob­sessed by ev­ery de­tail of her life.”

Melt­down fo­cuses on a se­ries of in­ci­dents in Spears’s life last year when she signed her­self out of re­hab af­ter one day, pub­licly shaved off her hair and was then pur­sued by the pa­parazzi.

Spears is played by bal­le­rina Gemma Nixon, who throws away the tutu to don a tight­fit­ting crop top, PVC hot pants and a pink Stet­son. Nixon re­searched her role by watch­ing MTV videos and ad­mits she had to learn “how to do a lot of writhing”.

This isn’t the first high-art cross­over project to tap the world of pop­u­lar mu­sic for in­spi­ra­tion. For ex­am­ple, Some Girls Are Big­ger Than Oth­ers, a mu­si­cal based on the songs of The Smiths, was well re­ceived by crit­ics two years ago. I wasn’t at the Melt­down per­for­mance, but, based on UK press re­views and on­line footage, it seems unique in that Spears’s mu­sic doesn’t get a look in; the bal­let fo­cuses solely on her per­sonal life. That’s hardly sur­pris­ing, given that said life in­creas­ingly re­sem­bles a Greek tragedy.

The most com­mend­able as­pect of Melt­down is that it doesn’t at­tempt to “break bar­ri­ers” or pop­u­larise what re­mains a niche art form. Pre­vi­ous bal­lets based on the mu­si­cal works of Elvis, The Bea­tles and The Rolling Stones at­tempted to fuse two dif­fer­ent styles, and were ex­cru­ci­at­ing to watch (and lis­ten to).

Melt­down has been crit­i­cised as a stunt that plays off the head­lines to make a few bob for it­self. How­ever, it is not an at­tempt to ramp up the box­of­fice by get­ting Brit­ney fans into the theatre. It may be con­tem­po­rary in its sub­ject mat­ter, but that’s the only nod al­lowed to pop cul­ture. The work has also thrown up eth­i­cal ques­tions, such as: how far can you take a show when its sub­ject is so trou­bled?

Whether Melt­down tours re­mains to be seen, but it is cer­tainly in­ter­est­ing that both dancer Nixon and chore­og­ra­pher Es­sakow ex­pressed shock at how the Spears story is be­ing played out, call­ing the treat­ment of Brit­ney “grotesque”. For point­ing out that alone, Brit­ney: The Bal­let is a worth­while

ex­er­cise.

A pre-melt­down

Brit­ney (2000)

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