United Kingdom Carl Davis, Aladdin: Dancers of the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Paul Murphy (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 20.3.2013. (JPr)
Aladdin: César Morales
Princess Badr al-Budur: Nao Sakuma
The Djinn of the Lamp: Tzu-Chao Chou
The Mahgrib: Iain Mackay
Aladdin’s Mother: Marion Tait
The Sultan: Jonathan Payn
Music: Carl Davis
Choreography: David Bintley
Sets: Dick Bird
Costumes: Sue Blane
Lighting: Mark Jonathan
Susan Turner begins her introduction in the programme by stating ‘David Bintley describes Aladdin as “possibly the least ‘deep’ ballet I’ve ever made”. That aside, there’s no hint of pantomime slapstick or Disney schmaltz; his version of the age-old tale has a youthful charm laced with signature wit.’ I have only seen snippets of Disney’s Aladdin animated film or related theme-shows but I saw the pantomime at London’s O2 arena as recently as last Christmas and I assure you there is a lot that is very – very – familiar in those versions that is repeated in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s colourful, family-friendly, show, especially with Sue Blane’s costumes and Dick Bird’s, relatively two-dimensional, sets. Of course, it provides a wonderful introduction to ballet for younger children, though smaller ones will be a little bored because it goes on a bit too long. Also, for the story as they will know it, there is also relatively little real ‘magic’ in this version, despite The Djinn of the Lamp appearing, disappearing or hovering in the regulatory puff of smoke – and an equally obligatory ‘magic carpet ride’.
Susan Turner goes on to explain how David Bintley originally made the ballet – for The National Ballet of Japan in 2008 – very quickly ‘using a choreographic language familiar to them’. This translates as purloining (with the best intentions) bits from other famous ballets and fitting them into his new full-length piece. The ballet opens with the street-urchin Aladdin and two friends baiting the palace guards. This of course is just Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio larking around in ‘A market in Old China’! The Mahgrib, a magician, conjures up a sirocco wind to carry him and Aladdin out of the city and the female ‘Desert Winds’ bring us a touch of the Willis from Giselle. The vision of the ‘exquisite beauty’ Princess Badr al-Budur comes direct from The Sleeping Beauty, as do the divertissements for Onyx and Pearls, Gold and Silver, Sapphire, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamond in ‘The cave of riches’. The latter also is a nod to Balanchine as well as Petipa. Elsewhere there is much we have previously made the acquaintance of in La Bayadère, Scheherazade and The Prince of the Pagodas … and the Act II Lion Dance was almost exactly the same as in the recent O2 pantomime!
For those of us sitting watching it thinking ‘where have I seen those steps before’ we can equally be puzzled about the musical reminiscences throughout Carl Davis’s score originally composed for Scottish Ballet’s own Aladdin in 2001 but later substantially revised. For long stretches of the ballet I was imagining battling starships and John Williams’s and Jerry Goldsmith’s scores that are well-known to Sci-Fi film aficionados. And what I am describing as Davis’ ‘Princess’s theme’ that was used when the heroine dances on her own and for the more romantic moments Bintley allows her with Aladdin, went round and round in my mind until I remembered what it was – part of Gilbert Bécaud’s tune to the famous song ‘What Now My Love’. What musical orientalism there was seemed just derived from Richard Rodgers’ The King and I. Regardless, it was given a commendable performance by the reliable Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy.
I don’t know whether ‘magpie mind’ describes what I have and perhaps these associations with other things I have seen and heard undermined my enjoyment of what was a thoroughly entertaining evening from an always spirited company. I do not want to seem as if I am constantly carping but it could have been even better as I will continue to explain.
David Bintley’s steps and mime-based story-telling is eye-catching if a little prosaic. However, he knows how to make the best of his corps de ballet, especially in the crowd scenes such as in Act I and Act II. There is plenty of leaping, spinning, lifts and poses but it all falls rather short on characterisation. Aladdin is clearly a Johnny-come-lately on the make but Bintley makes little of his developing attraction for the Sultan’s daughter he spies on – along with her equally scantily-clad six attendants – in ‘The bathhouse’ (a scene for the dads in the audience who have been dragged along). Also there is no real sense of menace from the Maghrib either.
Dick Bird’s sets for Japan have been recreated on a smaller scale for Birmingham and subsequent touring, but occasionally they looked a little lost on the vast Coliseum stage. Throughout they are pleasing to the eye with all the minarets, gaudy palace interiors and a splendid cave with multi-coloured LED stalactites and stalagmites (lighting by Mark Jonathan) where Aladdin finds the magical lamp at the bottom of a large staircase that resembles a fossilised dinosaur’s ribcage. Sue Blane’s costumes perfectly complemented David Bintley’s vision apart from the tutus in her new Diamonds designs that seemed a little too stiff when the dancers moved.
With all the familiar choreographic territory, there are plenty of opportunities for several members of the company to shine, and that they do as the Birmingham Royal Ballet is on top form as usual. César Morales was a suitably charismatic, whirling-dervish of an Aladdin, technically strong and a fine partner to Nao Sakuma’s sweet, though a touch pallid, Princess; I thought she could have smiled a little more. The suitably villainous Mahgrib (Boo, hiss!) was the always accomplished Iain Mackay. The fleet-footed Tzu-Chao Chou splendidly whirled away as the often gravity-defying – and eye-catching – Djinn, who looked like a blue version of Yul Brynner in the aforementioned The King and I. Aladdin’s mother was portrayed by the petit Marion Tait, BRB’s assistant director, who thoroughly enjoyed herself, though I thought her portrayal was just a little non-PC and would not be allowed in straight theatre. She reminded me of a similar exotic portrayal by Agnes Moorehead in The Conqueror). Also commanding attention were sparkling performances from Natasha Oughtred’s Sapphire, Ambra Vallo and Tyrone Singleton in the Rubies duet, and Céline Gittens’s Diamond – despite her tutu issues – in that Act I ‘The cave of riches’. Vibrant and virtuosic riches indeed!
Aladdin is a co-production in partnership with Houston Ballet Foundation, and the rest of money to stage it came from charitable trusts, legacies and individual support; all are to be praised for their philanthropy. I hope this will be the commercial success BRB needs and does as much as they would hope for to entice new audiences to ballet and keep them coming back for more.
For more about the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.brb.org.uk.