A local girl loves dancing… a combination of natural talent, hard work and good luck gets her noticed… and she makes it as a star on stage or screen. The framework is so familiar it’s practically a genre. Depending on how you fill in the dots you can end up with stories from Ballet Shoes to Forty-Second Street and Flashdance.
Up from the Waste is Antonia Franceschi’s version, rooted in her own autobiography. Raised in a tough New York neighbourhood, Franceschi took dance classes as a child, went on to train at the School of Performing Arts and at the School of American Ballet. She performed in the film Grease, had a major role in Fame, and danced for several years with New York City Ballet. But Up from the Waste is not an inspirational story of a dream come true, but a lesson in survival.
This is a tale of neighbourhood gangs, drugs, violence, sex, rape and murder. The role of Franceschi is played both by herself and by actress Clare Holman, who acts as the main narrator of the story. It is delivered in a foul-mouthed but matter-of-fact style that makes you believe it was real – at least when Franceschi is doing the talking, for Holman, quite apart from her sometimes precarious American accent, seems just too nice and straightforward to convince. But listen to Franceschi – for example in a powerful video monologue in which she recites a litany of sexual harassment that leads, with inexorable logic, from male appraisal (“you lookin’ good!”) to physical threat – and you believe her as a complex and contradictory character with a fighting spirit and not a few battle scars.
aims below the belt of the ballet world to show that life’s seamier side persists
The story shows dance – not just as fantasy and feeling, but as work and willpower – as an exit route from the no-hope environment of Franceschi’s urban background. “Pull up from the waist,” her teacher used to say. It was a way up, perhaps, but not wholly a way out. Franceschi aims below the belt of the ballet world to show that life’s seamier side persists: a sugar rush instead of a cocaine hit, sexual powerplay, and chilling echo of neighbourhood stalkers during a balletmaster’s abusive tirade in which he says “you looking good…”
The narrative is interspersed with danced episodes which bring on David Justin, Alexandre Proia and William Smith (respectively from Birmingham Royal Ballet, New York City Ballet and Dance Theatre of Harlem), and balletmaster Ian Knowles. The dancing opens promisingly enough with an edgy skit on basketball manoeuvres, but the dancers’ varied talents are dissipated as later episodes drift into workaday choreography, middle-range Balanchine peppered with body-rolls, for that street look.
Up from the Waste is part of the National Theatre’s Art of Regeneration programme – and that could almost be a subtitle for the piece. The not remotely genteel setting of the Albany Theatre in Deptford was a good place to see it, and it drew on a considerable pool of talent, including dramaturg Martin Sherman and composer Gary Yershon. Yet in the end the work seemed like a set of great ingredients that just didn’t cook. Perhaps it needed more fictionalising, perhaps less. It certainly needed more focus, greater attention to how the dots are filled in – and I hope it gets these before its spring tour, for the raw material deserves it.