Arthouse films tend to be either great or dreadful with no middle ground, so consciously setting out to make one is a dangerous game. But if you get it right you join a constellation of star auteurs that includes such cinematic immortals as Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman.
There were clever nods to both these European masters in The Ballet Of The Nations, the movie-making debut of Impermanence dance theatre luminaries Roseanna Anderson and Joshua Ben-Tovim who screened their creation to an enraptured audience at Laban theatre.
The duo’s script was based on a 1915 pacifist satire by Vernon Lee, the pen-name of pioneering feminist writer Violet Paget, who loosely used the structure of a medieval morality play.
Anderson and Ben-Tovim stay true to that concept to tell the story – narrated by Titanic star Billy Zane to a hypnotic soundtrack by Robert Bentall – of how Satan (Sonya Cullingford) and her Ballet Master Death (Peter Clements) gleefully trap humanity in an endless dance of destruction.
Lee wrote her book in direct response to the unfolding nightmare of the First World War. But Anderson and Ben-Tovim’s film brings the tragedy bang up to date by pointing out, with the help of archive footage and contemporary statistics, that the carnage of 100 years ago still flourishes.
And they underscore the bleakness of the message with the blackest of black comedy, a series of gorgeously choreographed “Greek chorus” dance sequences and the beguiling beauty of cinematographer Jack Offord’s vision.
All of the images ravish the senses but some are touched by genius, especially the Seventh Seal-like chess pieces, a sequence in front of Stanley Spencer’s astounding The Resurrection Of The Soldiers in the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hants, and, best of all, a recurring and nerve-shredding motif of crosses on a beach being slowly washed away by the tide which wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Buñuel masterpiece.
There have been some great movies about the process of making dance, most notably The Red Shoes, Singin’ In The Rain and All That Jazz. The Ballet Of The Nations deserves to stand alongside any of those – and speaks of a stellar future for the couple who created it.
After the Laban screening, Anderson, Ben-Tovim, Zane and Bentall answered audience questions about the film’s evolution, with Zane declaring it was one of the most extraordinary projects he had ever been involved in.
Then Bentall rounded off what was already a memorable evening by playing themes from the movie on a nyckelharpa, a traditional Swedish fiddle, ending with a mesmerising version of the classic Warren/Dubin song Lullaby Of Broadway.