Tag Archives: BBC 4

Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake

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World-famous ballerina and artistic director of English National Ballet, Tamara Rojo, invites the viewer backstage as she prepares to take on the dual lead in the iconic ballet Swan Lake.

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As part of BBC Two and BBC Four’s Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan: Dancing Swan Lake presents a candid account of the challenges Rojo faces in terms of the performance of the two contrasting characters she will be playing.

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In contrast to Dancing in the Blitz, a previous programme from the Ballet Season, Good Swan, Bad Swan centres around interpreting the performance of the piece itself, as opposed to examining its social impact from within a wider cultural context.  Furthermore, the purpose of the programme is not to provide an introduction to Swan Lake, but to provide a deeper understanding and analysis of the main themes and symbolism within the story. Descriptions of the story within the programme provide the context for a deeper interpretation of the characters within the piece. As such, it seems apparent that the programme is aimed at an audience of those already somewhat familiar with ballet and ‘high culture’ in a general sense.

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The story of Swan Lake provides a linear narrative in which to place this analysis, starting from the moment the character of the White Swan, Odette is introduced. Between clips of the performance itself, we see Rojo in rehearsal studios and in her dressing room discussing the nature of the character and how this is represented within the performance.

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In one sequence Rojo is rehearsing a scene while talking the viewer through what each movement symbolises. Rojo is essentially teaching the viewer how to read each movement of the performance, providing them with the tools to interpret the subtle meanings of the piece.

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Although, of course, Rojo did not create Swan Lake, her interpretation of the piece is still one that carries a sense of validity and substance. As opposed to the analysis of say, an expert in the field who has seen Swan Lake numerous times and read countless books on the topic, the perspective of the performer provides a valuable insight into the process of creating the work itself. Through their performance, the work is recreated again and again.

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Good Swan, Bad Swan essentially presents a character study through the narrative of Rojo preparing to undertake the dual lead in Swan Lake. The programme is less about Rojo’s role as a performer, and more about understanding themes and symbolism surrounding the key characters within the piece.

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Programmes like Good Swan, Bad Swan demonstrate how television can compliment the arts by creating more informed audiences. However, I am hesitant to suggest that programmes such as this make the arts more accessible to a wider range of people. There is still the sense that these programmes are primarily targeted at those who are already familiar with ballet, and ‘high culture’ in general. So whilst they serve to nurture such audiences, they do little to contribute to expanding them.

Dancing in the Blitz: Telling the Story of British Ballet

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Televisual Surrealism

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Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry is a two-part series presented by writer Jonathan Meades. Through the course of the two programmes, Meades presents a rationale for the artistic and architectural merit of 20th century concrete Brutalist architecture.

Meades’ narration throughout is continuous and the speed at which the information is given can be rather overwhelming for those not familiar with the history of this architectural movement. This combined with the somewhat monotonic nature of the Meades’ mode of address demands that the audience pay full attention to the words being spoken in order to make sense of the audio-visual essay presented throughout the programmes.

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This notion of the audio-visual essay is reinforced by what could be described as ‘subheadings’ being displayed on the screen to introduce and group together each point of Meades’ argument.

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The programme features the typical on location shots of the presenter standing in front of concrete buildings, and stock footage and images of Brutalist architecture. Black and white images of concrete structures also feature at various points throughout the programmes, a stylistic choice that mirrors the nature of the architecture being discussed.

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However, interlaced between these more conventional shots is studio footage that takes a more bizarre stylistic approach.

 In many of the studio shots Meades is shrouded in darkness, standing next to images being projected on a screen. The use of shadow in such shots creates a somewhat film noir vibe.

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Continuing with this cinematic theme, there are various dreamlike scenes throughout the programme similar in style to that of avant-garde and surrealist cinema. Indeed, a number of shots would not look too out of place within a David Lynch film.

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Post-production editing is used to create scenes that disrupt the audiences’ perception of viewing ‘reality’ through the television. In one scene Meades stands in a room facing himself to illustrate a particular point about outward appearances.

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A number of shots have also been edited in post-production to create scenes in which Meades is superimposed upon other images, creating compositions that are striking in their irregularity.

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These superimposed images often feature Meades as semi-transparent, creating a ghost-like visual effect of not quite being there. Even more disconcerting is that Meades is often still and silent in these transparent images while his audio narration continues.

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Even some of the on-location filming breaks the usual conventions of the pundit style. Shots of Meades stood still and silent are accompanied by his narration, creating a discrepancy between what we see on screen and what we hear.

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Television’s mediation of reality is often something that is hidden from audiences. We do not usually see the cameras, studios, production crews and so on that construct what we view on screen. The surrealist approach to programming displayed by Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness demonstrates how arts programming can be experimental in regards to how reality is presented on screen. The dreamlike scenes juxtaposed between more conventional shots draw attention not only to the ways in which television mediates a view of the world, but also how our own senses construct our everyday lived experience of reality.

Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness

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Rococo: Travel, Pleasure Madness is a three part series presented by art critic, and former Head of Arts for Channel 4, Waldemar Januszczak. The series focuses on the social context in which the art of this historic period was produced, with little discussion around artistic techniques or critique of the style. Rather, Januszczak sets out to provide an understanding of this artistic movement beyond the aesthetic value of the works produced in order to enlightened the viewer with the rococo’s ‘wider achievements’ beyond the ‘pink frilliness’ that has come to define the era.

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The series is shot entirely on location. The audience is given the sense that they are going on a pilgrimage to gain a deeper understanding of the art produced during this period that is informed by experiencing it in its original context.

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When artworks and galleries are shown, they often feature other people wandering around, observing the paintings to reinforce the sense of first-hand experience and physical presence.

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This sense of presence is also furthered by the use of handheld camera shots following either just behind or beside Januszczak as he walks and talks. This, along with Januszczak’s informal style of address, gives the impression that you are accompanying him on this journey to discover the deeper meaning behind the art of the rococo. Rather than the presenter being portrayed as an authority figure in the style of Civilisation or Ways of Seeing, Januszczak acts as a travelling companion, or at most, a rather over-enthusiastic tour guide.

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Throughout the series there are instances of people in period costume acting out scenes to illustrate Januszczak’s discussion. During these scenes the camera is positioned to capture Januszczak watching the drama unfold with us. This combination of the contemporary and historical throughout the series gives the impression that the viewer is being taking taken on a journey through time as well as geographical space, emphasising the importance of situating art within a historical context.

Most strikingly, there are also points within the programme where actors dramatise scenes from paintings:

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Such scenes demonstrate how through the medium of television art can be brought to life in a way that transforms how we relate to it. It is no longer a static image of a past moment; it has become a contemporary moving image that has the ability to capture a range of moments and emotions that can alter and distort the meaning of the original piece.

However, with the strong focus social context, you sometimes get the impression that the art featured is merely a backdrop for extensive accounts of particular popular figures or cultural trends from the rococo period. Rather than an analysis of artistic methods, viewers are given the contextual knowledge to interpret the art at a deeper level and understand the moments that have been immortalised within the pieces. This, along with Januszczak narration with its multi-textual references throughout, suggests that this programme is aimed at an audience that possesses a certain level of education and understanding in regards to ‘high-culture’. This imagined audience is also evident in the scheduling of the programme. Being broadcast at 9pm on BBC 4 puts the series in competition with primetime shows on the more mainstream channels such as BBC One, ITV and Channel 4, creating an alternative choice for viewers interested in more niche programming.