Opposites Attract in Birmingham Royal Ballet Triple Bill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Opposites Attract: A triple bill of dance comprising Take Five (music/The Dave Brubeck Quartet; choreography/David Bintley) Lyric Pieces (music/Edvard Grieg; choreography/Jessica Lang) and Grosse Fuge (music/Beethoven; choreography/Hans Van Manen): Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 26.9.2012. (GR)

In the brochure to publicise Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2012/13 Season, Director David Bintley stressed that they have ‘some fantastic stories to tell’. With a line-up that includes Swan Lake, Cinderella, Coppélia, Giselle and Aladdin, who would disagree? Their autumn term opened at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 26th Sept with a programme labelled Opposites Attract – three isolated routines that justified the imaginative title. Although the story element of each was thin, the distinct opposites of the three music genres – jazz, lyrical piano and classical chamber – gelled together flawlessly. Together with a diversity of movement devised by three acclaimed choreographers and the talented BRB troupe of dancers, it produced an extremely attractive whole.

The first item of this threesome was Take Five, featuring numbers from The Dave Brubeck Quartet, transcribed by Colin Towns. The alto sax of Simon Allen plus Steve Lodder on piano, Dudley Phillips on double bass and Nic Francis reproduced the familiar Brubeck sound that began in 1959 to perfection: the haunting strains of Paul Desmond’s Take Five (so called from its 5/4 signature) the mesmerising foot-tapping beat of Brubeck’s own Blue Rondo à la Turk andhis infectious hand-clapping Unsquare Dance. Together the pieces illustrated the versatility of David Bintley’s choreography, who seems able to create a dance sequence from any style of music. The jazz idiom he unashamedly loves suits him and I for one would like to see more. Divided into six numbers many of the BRB principals caught my eye: in Take Five Carol-Anne Millar displayed her winsome smile and bouncing blond locks to advantage, incorporating leaps that bore comparison to those of her four escorts; Arancha Baselga, Laura-Jane Gibson and Laura Purkiss showed they were indeed Three To Get Ready, closing their contribution with a delightful hand-on-shoulder pose; Elisha Willis and Tyrone Singleton, two of BRB’s finest, combined exquisitely in a traditional Two Step. In contrast, William Bracewell, Joseph Caley, Feargus Campbell and Steven Montieff hand-clapped their way through Four Square – the double bass solo of Phillips reminding me of the Haggart jazz classic Big Noise from Winnetka.

Jonathan Higgins showed why he is BRB’s Principal Pianist in the second item Lyric Pieces, a ballet based upon the Grieg set of sixty-six short piano pieces of that name. There can be no higher praise of Higgins than to say his rendition was worthy of a solo recital in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. There was a delicate touch to his Arrietta, a gay abandon in his Elves’ Dance andurgency throughout his March of the Trolls. First commissioned and performed for the 2012 Birmingham International Dance Festival with choreography by Jessica Lang, it contained an interesting mix and match of dance forms, reinforcing US dance critic Gottlieb’s quotation of Lang, an ‘impressive sense of how to move dancers in natural yet seemingly inevitable ways’. Central to her staging was the black paper softwall shapes of molo design, objects ‘that define intimate temporal space,’ moulded into contours to purportedly suit the mood of each Grieg piece. I thought these shapes did integrate with the dance movement at times whilst on other occasions they failed to convince. The eight black stools were applied effectively, particularly for the ensemble statue formed during In Ballad Style (see photo). Another shortcoming I thought was that with ten pieces crammed into some 25 min, mood portrayal was established but often unsustained. Choreographically my favourites were Arietta and Remembrance – the opening and closing ensemble numbers – and the male quartet of James Barton, Mathias Dingman, Brandon Lawrence and Iain Mackay in Norwegian Dance.

BRB turned to yet a third different creative pair for the final offering – the music of Ludwig von Beethoven with choreography from Hans van Manen. What a combination Grosse Fuge turned out to be – a veritable battle of the sexes! The four male dancers (Joseph Caley, Chi Cao, Matthew Lawrence & Iain Mackay) were the first to assert themselves, aggressively commandeering centre stage, four guys clearly intent on the pull. Bare-chested, in long black Japanese-style split skirts and broad fancy-buckled belt they strutted and pranced around while the gals (Samara Downs, Momoko Hirata, Victoria Marr & Elisha Willis) in their skimpy flesh-coloured underwear remained motionless back stage left. These costumes, another contribution from van Manen, helped to create a spectacular scenario. Not that the girls were disinterested as they clearly demonstrated when the boys took a break. The forceful dissonant music of Beethoven’s Op 133 with its unexpected turns, unsettling rhythms and prodigious leaps allowed all eight dancers to make the first part electrifying – the orchestral arrangement of the quartet superbly played by the BRB Sinfonia under conductor Koen Kessels. As the protagonists paired off, the mood got even sexier when the men discarded their skirts with a flourish, leaving them with only their scanty black trunks. And as the music changed to a cavatina, the girls grabbed the belt buckles and were dragged around the stage between the boy’s legs; it was all highly suggestive, but never distasteful; simply spellbinding!

Although the three numbers that made up BRB’s Opposites Attract were poles apart, it was a magnetic show. If BRB keep up this standard the 2012/13 season promises to be a cracker.

Geoff Read