Network’s new double DVD set from the 1960s ABC TV arts series Tempo is, as I posted last week, a wonderful collection of archival jewels. After last week’s introduction, I intend to post over the next few Fridays responses to individual films and tele-recordings, starting with the half-hour film A Tale of Two Talents, first broadcast on 6 February 1966. The talents on view are those of pop singer Tom Jones, a star for just a year or so when the film was shot and still playing Mecca Dancing Locarno Stevenage, and Royal Ballet principal Lynn Seymour, a dazzling young dancer who had been a favourite with critics and audiences for seven years or so. James Goddard’s film sets up an intriguing contrast of low art and high, of mass audiences and niche appeal, but initially it is far from apparent what the two figures might have in common. But as we see Tom performing and Lynn rehearsing the answer emerges comes across very clearly: sex.
The film was clearly made on a very modest budget – with perhaps four or five days shooting – and it has a spare, almost austere style. There is a single interview with each of Tom and Lynn, and we see him in a taxi and using an electric razor and her shopping for clothes and shoes and also being photographed for a publicity still. There are no other contributors to the film and the context comes from an assertive narration with a tone that now comes across as a touch alien.
The pop singer, like the bullfighter, needs his entourage of agents as a protective wrapping against the world outside. To some people he seems trapped, cocooned. The dancer, although free of a personal entourage is trapped in yet another way.
The core of the film is a juxtaposition of two sequences: one of Tom singing three numbers for an audience of adoring women in Stevenage, the other of Lynn with her regular partner David Doyle dancing in a rehearsal room the climactic scene of Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet The Invitation, which was made on Seymour and Christopher Gable in 1960. (The web site from the estate of the choreographer has extensive information about the work here.)
The camera is up close and personal with Tom as he sings, right in amongst the action, loving the love from the fans and framing Tom tight. The editing is (comparatively) fast and furious, making the most of the verité style and allowing us to experience just a little of what it must have been like to be a star. This is sweaty and sexy, and it comes complete with a crotch shot in the closing credits.
The dance is filmed very differently. Lynn and David Doyle are in rehearsal clothes, and apart from a glimpse of the pianist we see no one else. Their duet is shot in a single fluid take with the camera standing back and observing with a cool eye as the dancers move from their first tentative contact through to seduction, a brutal rape and finally Seymour left abject and abandoned on the floor (above).
For this is the climactic scene that caused a sensation when it was first performed at Covent Garden in December 1960. The film makes a passing reference early on to the controversy but the dance itself is presented without explanation or comment. Yet it is strikingly explicit, with Mátyás Seiber’s modernist score being pounded out on the keyboard and the dancers performing with shocking intensity. The power of the scene is also enhanced by contemporary dress (the ballet is actually set at an Edwardian garden party) and by the distanced, objective camera.
In her wonderful biography, Different Drummer: The Life of Kenneth MacMillan, Jann Parry offers a vivid description of the final moments of the dance:
The man flings the girl violently against his hips, her legs splayed, and twists her so that she arches backwards into a knot around him; she hangs on to her feet as she slides slowly to the ground. While being extraordinarily apt for the girl’s state of horrified rictus the hooped position and descent down the man’s legs echo the end of the sexual act in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son.
A Tale of Two Talents is precious for its preservation of this scene which, interestingly, Parry says was the first of MacMillan’s ballets to be written down in Benesh notation. I am uncertain about whether there is a full film recording of the original but I did find online this fragment from a documentary about MacMillan made late in his life. (I have been unable to identify this film; on the website of the choreographer this section carries a © NVC Arts acknowledgement.) Filmed with a single camera from, as it appears, the front of the dress circle, this makes a fascinating contrast with Tempo’s presentation.