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THEATRE [Bulbul and his Oriental Ballet at the Arts], Tranchell, The Cambridge Review, 16th May 1953

Enjoyment comes mainly through understanding. Jokes that are incomprehensible are not funny. Copies of the Decameron in basic Ostiak sent recently to a Pigmy settlement in Brazil (in error, of course) were turned quickly into the gayest of paper skirts. An art does not warm our cockles unless we are au fait with its conventions. Even in England contemporary music is labelled “modern” and regarded as an abomination by those who do not understand it. To enjoy one must understand.

Consequently, to present a foreign art-form, in which there are many symbolic or traditional movements, to people ignorant of them, without any attempt at an explanation, no more educates or entertains than does a recital of Siamese pornography to a deaf Welshman; it is frustration all round. In Oriental ballet, is there a distinction between classical and modern, religious and secular? And which was Bulbul’s? Surely there are sophisticated forms and folk-forms of ballet, and perhaps a form equivalent to Ballet Jooss? As to this we were told nothing.

So I shall describe my impressions as one confronted by a somewhat perplexing punch-and-judy show—and if I use the words “monotonous” or “graceful” I may have been annoyed or charmed by the wrong things—that is, I may have been barking my shins up the wrong gumtree. But there it is, and goes to show that to put a product of Oriental Art on the European stage (for consumption by the general public), with no more explanation than a few indistinguishable mews of pigeon-English on a wheezy loudspeaker reduces the show to the level of a circus—a mere parade of bearded ladies.

My most aggravating impression was one of longueur. The performance lasted two hours, but consisted of only six or seven items. Each of these seemed to be spun out interminably upon some very tenuous idea that would have been charming if treated with brevity.

The music was extremely square and repetitive, and had probably been somewhat Westernised for the occasion. There were none of the exciting cross-rhythms one has come to expect in Oriental music. Melodically the variations played on various themes were by no means arresting. At two points in the programme dancing was halted, usually by drawing a curtain, and we were regaled with an instrumental solo. One man played a bamboo flute or piccolo, and later another vied with him in virtuosity upon a sitar (a very large stringed instrument played with the fingers, several strings being left to set up a constant drone) … in each case the piece ended suddenly, as much a surprise to the player as to the now benumbed audience.

The orchestra was composed of seven men seated crossleg in a line across the back of the stage. They had a nice variety of Eastern instruments, and when bored with these chanted in a rich nasal yowl.

Of the dancers, Bulbul and his partner Afroza stood out a mile for their grace and dignity. I was particularly taken with the scene of Hafix visiting the tomb of his beloved and dancing with her spirit, though I continually expected the lighted candles on stage to set fire to the Chorus girls’ long white frillies. In a subsequent scene Bulbul’s representation of riding on horse-back was superb—the determined hauteur of a jesuit out to convert a drag-hunt.

The chorus was disappointing. The ladies were admittedly young and beautiful, but their wide-eyed coyness was of the sort found in the young women on Edwardian drawing-room song-covers, and they spent an appreciable time looking at the audience, or should I say for the audience. Still, their youth and beauty was completely eclipsed by the brashness of the chorus men. These seemed incongruous, not only in their gauche ape-like motions (from which one gathered they had imbibed culture and cocacola from our gallant septic tank across the Atlantic), but in their apparent preference for hugging or tickling each other (and not the girls), and for any sort of tom-fool knockabout “Façade”-like mime. But perhaps I should blame the choreographer, if there was one.

Out of place also were the falsetto squeaks and squeals emitted by these creatures from time to time. One was forcibly reminded of the similar vociferations that skirted-people from the north of England seem to make (regardless of their appropriateness) during their ungainly eightsomes.

However, Bulbul and Afroza carried the show, and made the deepest impression. Their work is really excellent, and the theatre was worth a visit for their sakes alone. Afroza has the most fascinating little hands—the palms of which seemed to be red, whether from betel nut or cochineal, I could not say. Here again she and Bulbul used their hands to an enormous extent. Actions were obviously speaking louder than words—but oh to know what those actions meant!

In general I would say the dresses are charming, the principals most engaging, and the ideas entirely pleasing. If individual items can be shortened, and the chorus perhaps refined, then we have here a potentially excellent entertainment. I say potentially, and refer you back to my opening paragraphs.

Peter Tranchell