I really didn’t want Checkmate to turn out a period piece.
My expectations were based on memories of seeing the ballet as a teenager, and the powerful images of fear and raw anguish present in the photos of Robert Helpmann’s performances as the Red King in 1937 and then – when he was on the verge of death himself – in the Australian Ballet’s first production in 1986. There’s an intensity of emotion that comes through even a still photo. Especially a still photo.
And there lies one of the ballet’s challenges: its 1930s stylisation and sometimes static staging – like a tableau – often work against the drama of the scenario by composer Arthur Bliss.
All the same, I liked it. I liked the stylisation, the arcane, almost courtly presentation of a passionate theme; I liked the music. The fact that the scenario was devised by the composer – as opposed to the composer writing to someone else’s scenario – is a source of strength. It’s a remarkable and important work. It has integrity. I even liked Ninette de Valois’ choreographic language, all sur la pointe and, as Colin Peasley so aptly describes it, “very stabby”.
So it made me sad that more people in the theatre didn’t really warm to it. At least not on Tuesday night, when for a moment I feared the tepid applause wouldn’t last long enough for a proper curtain call.
If I’m rational about it, I can see why it might not truly resonate with audiences in 2011. At least nowadays, this is a ballet that digs its own grave.
If Death is going to win out over Love – and let’s face it, it does this on stage all the time – then we must want to cast our lot in with Love. But in Checkmate, Love’s representatives are old, frightened and feeble, or young, naive and sentimental. (Seriously, Red Queen, what made you think for a minute that pleading would gain you any ground against a stronger woman??) As for Death, he gets the better deal in that he draws the winning colour.
But the Black Queen… She’s the cool, calculating female who will win at any cost and at no cost, who will flirt without an ounce of feeling, who will stab you in the back (and your King too). We know that female and we do not like her. We do not like to see her win. (I sensed a faint collective desire to boo this character, but no one seemed to feel sufficiently worked up to actually do so.)
And yet. And yet… I like it!
Of course, for me it’s one of those ballets that’s loaded with association and significance. All the ballet biographies and histories I devoured as a kid instilled a reverence for the names: Dame Ninette de Valois, Sir Robert Helpmann, the ‘Vic-Wells’ company… even Margot Fonteyn had a role in the premiere. Long before I saw it, it was a ballet I wanted to get to know.
Checkmate is a ballet with a distinctive, coherent style – musically and choreographically. There’s no reason why, period piece or not, it can’t be appreciated for what it is. It is stylised, it does seem arcane. That’s not a terrible thing when the inspiration is chess – calculating, drawn out, merciless, and yet as capable of arousing passions as the next game. But is chess the best analogy for a contest between love and death? Life and death, yes; you don’t need Ingmar Bergman to prove that. But love as a contestant? Perhaps that’s the weakness. A chessboard scenario with its cool strategy offers no sensible place for Love, which is perhaps why she is so poorly defended in the match.
In the end, the Tuesday audience gave its most rapturous applause to a set of slow pas de deux danced to Arvo Pärt. (Apparently a copyright symbol is a compulsory part of its title. What’s next? Hamlet©?) There was no dramatic conflict here. It was perfectly controlled, exquisitely executed. In many ways it was even cooler and more technically calculating than Checkmate, the music was certainly more static. But, and this is the important part for the 21st-century sensibility, it managed to be more sensuous and was entirely lovely. Checkmate will never be “lovely” but it will always intrigue me.