Athleticism, Caricature and Magic from Birmingham Royal Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Autumn Celebration – The Grand Tour, Faster and The Dream: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Cathedral Choir (girls’ voices) and Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Philip Ellis. (conductor). Sadler’s Wells, London, 26.10.2012. (JPr)

David Bintley’s new ballet Faster was premièred in Birmingham in June and gets its inspiration from the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’), enabling the choreographer to focus on a number of the parallels between sport and dance. Bintley says ‘I’m interested in the psychological aspect of sport, the focus and discipline. That continued repetition of small details resulting in the perfect throw or run or jump on the day. Like a performance.’ It is a work ‘roughly in three movements’, with the finale being the end of a marathon and the race for the finish line. Before that, there is a display of the major disciplines of the Olympics with a ‘second movement (that) reflects two ideas’, the choreographer explains, ‘One is of injury and setback and failure, and the second is the fight to come back from that.’ This is represented by a slightly less physical and occasionally more expressive duet for the excellent Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton. Bintley says about the fight: ‘It’s a man and a woman so it’s physically unbalanced. But I like that, because it is about the woman being injured and having the odds stacked against her. She’s fighting back against a seemingly insurmountable foe.’ He continues: ‘I’m avoiding being too literal. Each character will move in ways inspired by a number of sports, rather than specifically basing each one on a particular event. So the movements of fencers and tennis players get combined in one instance, and elsewhere divers and jumpers get mixed up into shapes in the air.’

It is danced – if that is the correct word for all the movement we see – with great enthusiasm by 21 dancers (nine men and 12 women) to a wonderfully rhythmic, propulsive, percussive, jazz-inspired score by Matthew Hindson that makes 35 minutes race by! Becs Andrews provides colourful flesh-revealing sports outfits – some of which are so skin-tight they would make Women Beach Volleyballers blush! However they attractively display the well-honed bodies of the dancers involved and celebrate their wonderful athleticism, especially during the stamina-sapping ending.

The triple bill was opened with a true ‘museum piece’ – Joe Layton’s 1971 The Grand Tour – that is nothing more than a ballet version of Woody Allen’s recent wonderful Midnight in Paris. That film gave us caricatures of 1920s’ Parisienne celebrity elite. The Grand Tour has an art deco 1930s’ transatlantic ocean liner design – by John Conklin with costumes to match – that would service any production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. It is performed to a ‘jukebox musical’ collection of Noel Coward songs (adapted and orchestrated by Hershy Kay) and features Coward himself with half-a-dozen of his friends and contemporaries having fun on board, along with an American Lady (who is a looker-on like Owen Wilson in the Woody Allen film), assorted Stewards and two Italian Stowaways. There is no laughter now as would have been heard when it was first put on because all of the famous people shown are long dead and now unknown to today’s audiences. It wasn’t his fault that Valentin Olovyannikov’s George Bernard Shaw in his gaudy costume looked a bit too much like Jimmy Savile for comfort and that made his coupling with Theda Bara (a silent era sex symbol) rather disquieting. However the foxtrot with Alice B Toklas (Kristen McGarrity) and Gertrude Stein (Rory Mackay) was a comic highlight. It is a charming, trite, harmless affair, great to have seen once but very much of its time. The dancers have plenty of opportunity to act but little chance to dance but Laura-Jane Gibson, one of the stowaways, did well in her few brief moments to shine.

The Dream – William Bracewell and Natasha Oughtred (c) Bill Cooper

Finally, there was Frederick Ashton’s 1964 The Dream – something I was especially looking forward to … and it did not disappoint. I first saw it in 1978 with Merle Park, Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep but not too many times since. However because it is my favourite Shakespeare play (I even acted Oberon once) it was like revisiting an old friend, but it is to the credit of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s extremely good soloists and corps de ballet that it seemed all so fresh and magical. The female fairies were romantic and ethereal, and Ambra Vallo’s Helena was the pick of the lovers. Feargus Campell’s transition as Bottom from rustic to ‘ass’ could have been concealed better from the audience but he did his hind leg pointe work exceptionally well – though as the years go by its similarity to Ashton’s clog dance for his earlier La fille mal gardée becomes more apparent. Tzu-Chao Chou was an excellent Puck, a totally believable mischievous will-o’-the-wisp. Natasha Oughtred was a suitably regal and lyrical Titania and William Bracewell’s Oberon hid the technical demands Ashton make of him so well that his pirouettes, spins and virtuoso dancing seemed so sufficiently insubstantial to appear aptly non-human at times.

To my ears the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis, did not play a note wrong throughout the glorious Mendelssohn score that was wonderfully enhanced by the contribution of the girls of the Birmingham Cathedral Choir. The orchestra were outstanding here – as they were throughout the musically varied evening.

Jim Pritchard