Autumnal Colour and Splendour Glorified in BRB’s Ballet Threesome

13/10/2011

  Autumn Glory: A ballet trilogy comprising Checkmate, (Choreography by Ninette de Valois, Music by Sir Arthur Bliss) Symphonic Variations (Choreography by Frederick Ashton, Music by César Franck) and Pineapple Poll (Choreography by John Cranko, Music by Sir Arthur Sullivan, arranged by Sir Charles Mackerras) all performed by dancers from the Birmingham Royal Ballet, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Philip Ellis (Conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 6.10.2011 (GR).

 The consistently excellent programmes that accompany the Birmingham Royal Ballet productions came up with something different this time around – the inclusion of a new set of photographs of their principal dancers taken at some of their favourite Birmingham places (www.balletinbirmingham.co.uk). Sites chosen included the Botanical Gardens in Edgbaston, currently displaying all the glorious colours of autumn. On Oct 6th at their Birmingham Hippodrome home, BRB matched this by bringing a magnificent variety of colour and splendour to their Autumn Glory trilogy.

Checkmate-Photo Bill Cooper

The original idea for a ballet based upon chess came from Sir Arthur Bliss (an enthusiast of the game) presenting his music to Ninette de Valois. The result was the premiere of Checkmate in 1937. The concept was clearly set out in the prologue as Love (Angela Paul) and Death (Rory Mackay) faced one another across a chessboard, vying for the red and black pieces. Matched by the grim Moderato Maestoso introductory music of Bliss, Mackay cut a sinister figure, reminding me of his namesake in Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. This was not going to be a romantic fairy-tale, but one with a prophetic message on the horrors of war.

The first chess pieces to become animated and act out human emotions were the eight red pawns. Their sprightly manoeuvres suggested that their battle-preparation had been laid-back – testimony to political events pre-1939. The red knights (Iain Mackay and Jamie Bond) knew that times would be bloody. Vital to the defence of their king, both dancers had all the moves: robust and defiant, elusive and aggressive. The black knights (Tyrone Singleton and Max Westwell) joined them in an energetic pas de quatre, as the opposing red and black pieces jockeyed for position in a Four Knights or Ruy Lopez opening. The Black Queen (Victoria Marr) entered the fray and took up a commanding position. I thought Marr was a cross between a couple of Tchaikovsky ballet villains – Maleficent and the Black Swan. Assisted by some penetrating phrases on the clarinet, her seduction process to see which of the two red knights she could put under her spell was irresistibly bewitching. Mackay fell hook line and sinker; emotion poured out of his subsequent solo mazurka.

The Red King (Jonathan Payn) and Red Queen (Jenna Roberts) emerged from the relative safety of their side’s defence coming into play, but their grave music augured disaster. Sure enough, the Black Queen got the better of the initial gambit and checked his opponent. But the Red Knight put duty before heart and engaged in a fierce sword battle with the Black Queen (not exactly Errol Flynn, but nevertheless plenty of thrust and parry). The Knight emerged victorious (some knight!) but failed to administer the killer strike. Let off, Marr had no qualms in ‘taking’ Mackay unawares. Having won a piece, Black showed his strength as the two sides came face to face and although depleted the ‘Reds’ held their own for a while. Eventually the Black pieces surrounded the now trembling and vulnerable Red King: the consummate actor Payn pulled it off, appearing decrepit and defeated. It was checkmate!

With three ballets on the bill, BRB had to fill three casts, so everyone got a go. It presented them with a trial of their strength in depth. How they delivered! The six principals who performed the second work Symphonic Variations were all up there with the best of them: Nao Sakuma, Elisha Willis, Natasha Oughtred, César Morales, Joseph Caley and Chi Cao, international in origin and now in reputation. This was classical ballet at its most graceful and captivating. The music of César Franck is scored for piano and orchestra; the Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted on this occasion by Philip Ellis and featured Jonathan Higgins on keyboard. Together they dynamically contrasted the opening motifs and throughout the six subsequent variations provided a fluid base upon which the six articulated the choreography of Frederick Ashton. The piece is said to epitomise Ashton’s vision of ballet, a realisation of the English style. Yet the initial statuesque poses of the three pairs of dancers in white costumed apparel and their return to those positions at the close, created a Greek setting in my mind. Further memorable moments were the precision timing of various steps to the smooth arpeggios of Higgins. Devoid of narrative, the emphasis was on movement for its own gratification and although lacking in those autumnal shades, the dancing of all six provided its own colour.

Pineapple Poll Carol-Anne Millar as Pineapple Poll - photo Bill Cooper-1

In 1951 John Cranko managed to transport the spirit of D’Oyly Carte onto the ballet stage with his Pineapple Poll. Mind you, he had considerable help – the eminently suitable dance music of Sir Arthur Sullivan had been selected and arranged by Sir Charles Mackerras; it all stemmed from the various operas, but Mackerras cleverly mixed it in such a way as make it difficult to identify every section. For the narrative Cranko and Mackerras chose W S Gilbert’s poem The Bumboat Woman’s Story, Cranko adding a few choice episodes of his own. This partnership, plus the designs of Osbert Lancaster, managed to retain the unique G & S style. This BRB production proved that and they continued the English tradition of laughing at their most honoured institutions.

An ensemble number set in Portsmouth town introduced six members of a ship’s crew and their sweethearts, so the audience were in for a jolly time. Jasper (Tzu-Chao Chou) the potboy of the local alehouse had eyes for Pineapple Poll (Carol-Anne Miller) but in their pas de deux it became clear that his feelings were not reciprocated. Poll like all the local girls fancied Captain Belaye (Robert Parker). And not surprisingly; when the dashing Parker appeared they all swooned to the appropriately chosen melody by Mackerras – the Patience number Twenty Lovesick Maidens. Belaye knew he’d got it and Parker danced an embellished hornpipe to prove it. The Captain’s fiancé Blanche (Arancha Balselga) then appeared with her aunt as chaperon (Victoria Marr, a far cry now from her femme fatale role in Checkmate).

But Poll had not given up on the good Captain and while he boarded the HMS Hot Cross Bun (courtesy of the quayside backdrop of Scene 2) our eponymous heroine disguised herself as one of the deckhands. Jasper duly discovered her clothes and feared the worst; it prompted Chou’s fine expressive solo.

The final scene took place next morning on deck with all hands assembled – the third of Lancaster’s brilliant designs. The Captain, somehow promoted to Admiral judging by his braids and tassels, was in command. Having inspected his crew, it was time to test the cannon. It failed, but after a trusty kick exploded into life, to great amusement around the auditorium. Poll fainted. A distant bell signalled it was Belaye’s wedding day. Poll had one final card to play, stripping down to her singlet she thrust her female chest under the nose of Belaye; it is his turn to be flabbergasted. The audience lapped it up as the slapstick continued, the other female members of the crew reverting to their curvy selves. Their male counterparts were likewise dumbfounded. This action packed sequence was accompanied by some stirring strains from Iolanthe and Trial by Jury. But in true Gilbertian fashion Poll now saw Jasper in a new light, and to a tune from HMS Pinafore the lines Never mind the whys or wherefores, Love can level ranks were borne out in ballet form. It all ended happily ever after. Christmas pantomime had come early to the Hippodrome this year with BRB’s rendition of Pineapple Poll, and all three ballets bathed in their Autumn Glory.

Geoff Read

 

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