Wonderfully Versatile Dance Trilogy from Birmingham Royal Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom E=mc2/Tombeaux/’Still Life at the Penguin Café: A triple bill of ballets danced by dancers from Birmingham Royal Ballet, all choreographed by David Bintley, with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Paul Murphy (Conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 3.10.2013 (GR).

 Still Life at the Penguin-Café Jamie Bond as the Brazilian Woolly Monkey.Bill-Cooper Photographer.

Still Life at the Penguin-Café Jamie Bond as the Brazilian Woolly Monkey.Bill-Cooper Photographer.


Elisha Willis & Joseph Caley
Mass:Yvette Knight/Jenna Roberts/Yijing Zhang
Manhattan Project: Y vette Knight/Jenna Roberts/Yijing Zhang: Samara Downs
Celeitas2: Maureya Lebowitz & Mathias Dingman
Music: Matthew Hindson
Choreography:David Bintley
Costumes: Kate Ford
Lighting: Peter Mumford

Who said you cannot integrate science with the arts? In 1976 Philip Glass did it with his Einstein on the Beach – a personal vision of a man whose ideas changed the world. David Bintley, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, clearly thought that whatever opera could tackle, ballet could do likewise. Inspired by David Bodanis’ book E=mc2featuring Einstein’s ground breaking formula, his ballet was conceived and premiered in 2009. As the first item of this triple bill it got the BRB 2013/14 season off to an explosive start.

 Unlike so many of Bintley’s ballets that graphically follow a narrative, E=mc2creates a dance spectacle from an abstract law of nature. The musical framework upon which this is based comprises a four-movement symphonic structure by Matthew Hindson, three of the movements corresponding to the elements of Einstein’s equation – energy, mass and the speed of light – with a fourth, the Manhattan Project, centring on the research that went into the making of the first atomic bomb. For Energy, Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley with a windmill of arms and legs headed a sizeable BRB corps de ballet, whose mechanical movements in close proximity portrayed much kinetic energy. I particularly liked the layers of light created by Peter Mumford, a visual effect that reminded me of the power available within the earth’s stratification. The high keyboard and upper woodwinds of Hindson’s score reinforced my impression of laser images and their potential power. Yvette Knight, Jenna Roberts and Yijing Zhang led the Mass movement, slowing everything down to a ponderous momentum, matched by the conservative tones of Kate Ford’s costumes. Complete with long white gown and fan, Samara Downs cut a lonely figure of a Japanese lady, survivor of the Manhattan Project. Mumford’s extensive bank of back stage lights and Ford’s dazzling costume patterns contributed much to Celerias2 (Latin for speed) while the partnership of Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman proved again that they are a pair to watch. But again this final movement, and the work as a whole, demonstrated the strength in depth of the Birmingham troupe, getting to grips with the elements of Einstein’s expression.


Principal Dancers:  Nao Sakuma & César Morales

Music: William Walton
Choreography: David Bintley
Design:  Jasper Conran
Lighting: John P Read

BRB moved light years away from the discipline of quantum physics for their second item of three. If E=mc2had a modern approach to music and movement, Tombeaux was much more conventional; William Walton’s reflective music Variations on a Theme by Paul Hindemith ensured that. But this was not simply a short piece designed to show off some of the grace and delicacy of ballet creations; no, Bintley furnished a twofold message. First there was his personal tribute to his mentors – Frederick Ashton and Ninette de Valois; several of the Ashton trademark steps were there, including the notorious ‘Fred Step’ (a sequence beginning with a pose en arabesque and closing with a pas de chat) plus Bintley’s variations. Secondly it was an expressive lament for the British ballet scene as seen by Bintley at the time of its première in 1993, a disillusionment that eventually led to his current BRB position; but as the lonely ballerina runs off stage at the end, Bintley retained both optimism and hope.

Again the group numbers had been well rehearsed, but with Nao Sakuma and César Morales as the lead soloists the BRB faithfuls knew that they were in for a treat – and dance-wise this was the highlight of the evening from this five star pairing. At one point, the gentleness with which Morales placed Sakuma on the floor resembled that of mourner placing a single flower on a loved one’s grave, consistent with the scenario and context of the Bintley’s Tombeaux. Many of the lifts were equally memorable, two sumptuous ones with Sakuma’s legs pointing vertically towards the flies were held there as if cast in stone.

Listening to Walton’s music, beautifully played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under their Principal Conductor Paul Murphy and leader Robert Gibbs, it was evident why it had inspired Bintley to set it to dance. The mutely coloured backdrop designs of Jasper Conran and some striking tutus blended perfectly to create a tasteful spectacle. The orchestral build up to the final exit of Sakuma was hopeful, but wistful too.

‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café

The Great Auk:Ruth Brill
Utah Longhorn Ram: Angela Paul with Iain Mackay
Texan Kangaroo Rat: Joseph Caley
Skunk Flea: Laura Day
Southern CapeZebra: Chi Cao
Now Nothing: Céline Gittens/Tyrone Singleton/Eva Davies
Brazilian Woolly Monkey:  Jamees Bond

Music: Simon Jeffes
Choreography: David Bintley
Designs: Hayden Griffiths
Lighting: John P Read

One had only to glance at the Penguin Café list of characters and their photographs arrayed in the excellent BRB programme to see that the third item of Bintley’s trilogy was going to be no ordinary ballet; with the protagonists named according to lesser-known varieties of common animal species, an element of comedy was intimated. This indeed turned out to be the case. But there was a serious side to the content of the ballet too, since the individual genera listed were, or are, in danger of extinction. This lines up with the double entendre of the ‘Still life’ in the ballet’s title: inanimate objects as opposed to continuing species. Who would have predicted at the work’s première in 1988 that the environmental issue raised would become such an important world topic today? The other half of title came from the name of composer Simon Jeffes’ cross-genre 1972 musical group the Penguin Café Orchestra.

There was nothing ‘still’ about Bintley’s collection of animals. Aided by some incredible costumes from Hayden Griffiths (see picture of Brazilian Woolly Monkey) every one seemed alive in every sense of the word, far from extinction. Each of the seven vignettes was a delight, appealing to young and old. Three I particularly liked were: Joseph Caley as the thigh-slapping Texan Kangaroo Rat in Long Distance; Laura Day as the perky, impish Humbold’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea, outrageously teamed with five over-zealous Morris dancers in The Ecstasy of the Dancing Fleas; Chi Cao as the rubber-limbed Southern Cape Zebra, half horse, half arrogant African Warrior, in White Mischief, a mood accentuated by some stripy xylophone accompaniment.

This opening to the BRB 2013/14 season had something for everyone; it would be hard to envisage a more versatile combination of ballets. It was a show that only the most resourceful of ballet companies could stage and Bintley’s Hippodrome-based group of dancers, musicians and production staff delivered across the board. This show goes on the road to Sadler’s Wells on Oct 15/16th and Plymouth on Oct 29/30th. The other pairing this autumn season is Sleeping Beauty scheduled for Birmingham on Oct 8-12th with subsequent airings at Sadler’s Wells, Sunderland and Plymouth. BRB looks set for another bumper year.

 Geoff Read