As the curtain goes up on Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Sarah Freeman speaks to choreographer and former dancer Daniel de Andrade.
Northern Ballet’s last outing was a pretty sumptuous affair. Casanova, choreographed by former principal dancer Kenneth Tindall, was a riotous romp through the life of the world’s greatest lover. Next comes another old boy of the company, but with a very different offering.
Daniel de Andrade arrived at Northern Ballet in 1995 and for his first full-length ballet as choreographer he had chosen the Holocaust drama The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
“Yes, it will be very different in feel,” says the Brazilian, who is clearly a master in the art of understatement. “But I hope it will be no less engaging. This company has a long history of staging narrative ballets and when David (artistic director David Nixon) asked me what I would like to do I initially toyed with a few ideas, including a version of the Diaries of Anne Frank. That’s when he asked whether I was familiar with The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.”
He wasn’t. Andrade had neither read John Boyne’s original 2006 novel nor seen the film version directed by Mark Herman. Both explore the horror of a Second World War Nazi concentration camp through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys whose friendship is divided by a wire fence. On one side is Bruno, the son of the camp’s Nazi commandant. On the other is Shmuel, a Jewish inmate and as the drama unravels, so too do the lives of the boys and their families.
The book’s publication wasn’t without controversy. Critics complained of historical inaccuracies and worse, some survivors said the story of friendship only served to romanticise what life had been like for Hitler’s Jewish victims. Boyne hit back, saying the book was never meant to be a factual record of Second World War atrocities, but rather had been written as a fable in order to tell a greater truth.
“That’s what struck me as soon as I read it,” says Andrade. “I didn’t read it as a real account of what happened in the those camps. I came to it fresh and I just thought it was a really original and sensitive way to expose the true horror of war. I also knew immediately that it would work perfectly as a dance piece and for a company like Northern Ballet.”
The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas – one of the company’s three world premieres for 2017 – will be part the company’s mid-scale tour, opening at Cast in Doncaster and touring to venues like Leicester Curve and Hull New Theatre.
And while it might not have been an obvious choice, for Andrade it had one immediate advantage – with the central characters two young boys it has given Northern Ballet’s slighter male dancers the chance to take centre stage.
“That’s been great, really great because they are just so hungry to learn and so pleased to be given the opportunity to take the lead. That makes my life a little easier as the choreographer because it means as soon as you get into the rehearsal studio they want to work and they have just as much input into the final piece as I do.
“I have always believed that my job is to get the most out of an artist rather than simply impose my idea of how something should be. These guys have researched the history as much as I have and right from the start I wanted this to be a collaboration. Yes, ultimately I decide what works and what doesn’t, but no one has a monopoly on good ideas.”
Having identified the story’s key scenes and erased those that simply wouldn’t translate as dance, Andrade knew that the success of the piece would depend on pinning down the story arc. One of the central criticisms of Boyne’s novel and the film was that the climax created too much sympathy for the Nazi commandant who unwittingly ends up sending his own son to his death.
“It is a delicate balance, but it is one we can definitely achieve,” he says.
“For me the two boys represent innocence and purity of spirit. The adults represent the corruption of that. They have become so blinkered, so ruled by fear and hate that they can’t see just how far they have come from the innocence of childhood. The ending is complicated, but I hope it shows that war only makes lesser human beings of us all.”
Andrade is the first to admit that it’s not an easy piece and the score also lacks the easy rhythm of some less complex ballets. Nevertheless there have been a few moments in rehearsals when he has wished that he was going to be on stage on opening night.
“As a performer I don’t think you ever get over that and those retired dancers who tell you they don’t want to be out there in front are generally lying. There will always be a part of me that thinks I wish I could be up on stage. It’s only natural and while the satisfaction I get from leading the creative process is different, it is just as good.”
Andrade arrived at Northern Ballet in 1995. At the time Christopher Gable was in charge and it was under his leadership that the company began to gain a reputation for staging dramatic narrative dance theatre.
“As a young dancer that was really exciting. At that time most ballet companies were focused on classical works, but when I arrived in Leeds you could instantly feel that this was a very different company with very different ambitions.
“Who else was doing full-length productions of Dracula, Giselle and The Hunchback of Notre Dame? No one. Northern Ballet really has been a pioneer of narrative ballet and having spent much of my performing career with them it feels right to be back here as a choreographer.”
This year will close with the final world premiere – The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Nixon himself – and by then the company will no doubt all need to spend a few weeks lying in a darkened room.
“Yes, it has been quite full on,” says Andrade, who saw his rehearsal period split in two by the Casanova run. “But you know what I am really proud to be part of this season because it really is a landmark for Northern Ballet and it also represents another step on the journey for both Kenny and I.”
As artistic director of Northern Ballet’s Short Ballets for Small People which has seen him produce the Elves & the Shoemaker for younger audiences, Andrade is a great believer in the need to take dance to new audiences and says healthy ticket sales at somewhere like Doncaster is evidence that if you put on good work, the people will come.
“There is an appetite for dance we just need to put on work which feeds it. Something like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas will I hope resonate with audiences particularly in today’s political climate.
“Sadly the very same patterns of behaviour which led to the Second World War seem to be flowing up all over the world, but I do believe that art has a part to play in helping us learn about the mistakes of the past.”
■ The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Cast, Doncaster, May 25 to 27; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, September 5 to 9; Hull New Theatre, October 18 to 21. For full tour dates go to northernballet.co.uk