WhyBritney: The Ballet is actually a Greek tragedy for highbrows
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