As part of the BBC’s Ballet Season, David Bintley, director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, explores how the British public came to embrace ballet during the Second World War in Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet.
As would be expected from a programme that focuses on events which happened during World War II, there is a strong focus on British national identity. The programme invokes the ‘Blitz spirit’ narrative of persevering in times of hardship and adversity to provide a social context for charting the development of British ballet.
The programme’s focus is primarily on the ballet performers and other individuals involved in the company, rather than the art of the performance itself. This, along with historic context of the Second World War, makes the programme accessible to audiences who may not be overly familiar with ballet. The programme’s focus on the social context in which British ballet developed provides a framework of understanding that is accessible to a greater number of people than that of an artistic analysis of the movement.
The programme uses a lot of archive footage and images to illustrate Bintley’s narration and the personal accounts of the performers. This footage is interlaced between shots of Bintley providing pieces to camera at the locations featured in the archive images.
This juxtaposition between the past and the present is also used in studio footage in which dancers perform in front of projected images to create a sense of visually connecting the historic and the contemporary.
This link between the historic and contemporary is most markedly represented within the opening shots of Bintley walking past what appears to be World War II re-enactment soldiers. A sequence that sets the tone for what will be a journey through history that combines the images of the past with the storytelling of the present.
At the beginning of the programme, Bintley states that he is setting out to tell the ‘story’ of British Ballet. The process of creating the narrative for this story is represented and constructed on screen. We see Bintley go to talk to various experts and historians within the field and visit ballet performers to gather first hand accounts of their experiences. In this regard, the story being told is one that is also being actively made throughout the programme by these discoveries and recollections being put together.
The linear nature of historical accounts is one that lends itself well to this idea of storytelling, but within stories there is also usually a sense of drama and suspense. Something to keep the reader reading, and in this case, the viewer watching.
To create this sense of drama, certain parts of the historic account are emphasised within the narrative. An account in which the Ballet Company are in Holland at the time of the Nazi invasion is given a lot of attention in particular. A member of the Ballet Company gives a personal account of the events that occurred, providing an emotive dimension to the narrative. Archive footage is also interlaced between shots of Bintley at various locations described within the accounts, providing juxtaposition between the historical images and the contemporary recollections of the events.
Dancing in the Blitz combines archive footage and storytelling to create a historic account that is entertaining and accessible to a wide audience. Even without any previous knowledge of the artistic merits of ballet, viewers are able to feel engaged with the personal accounts presented and the familiar narrative of wartime Britain. The multitude of archive clips and images used also creates a visually appealing experience that illustrates this narrative. Despite these elements, the programme is still seemingly marketed at niche audiences with its 9pm slot on BBC Four, where it must battle for attention with other prime time programmes on the more mainstream channels.