United Kingdom Darkness and Light – A Triple Bill of Dance based around the choreography of Sir Frederick Ashton: Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Philip Ellis (conductor). The Birmingham Hippodrome, 4.6.2014 (GR)
Les Rendezvous Music: Daniel Auber, orchestrated by Constant Lambert Design: Anthony Ward Lighting: Peter Teigen
Dante Sonata Music: Franz Liszt orchestrated by Constant Lambert Design: Sophie Fedorovich Lighting: Mark Jonathan
As momentum grew this week toward the seventieth commemoration of D-day, Birmingham Royal Ballet opened their 2014 Summer Season with a programme that proved that their ‘D’ clearly stands for dance – and specifically on this occasion the ballet creations of Sir Frederick Ashton. With a triple bill entitled ‘Darkness and Light’ the audience of June 4th at Birmingham’s Hippodrome were presented with some chilling reminders of World War II together with scenes of a much lighter disposition. It is to Ashton’s credit that his choreography (begun long before Germany invaded Poland and stretching to a legacy of over one hundred ballets) can continue to portray such a variety of moods whilst remaining worthy of performance today, particularly when excellently presented by the current BRB corps de ballet. One odd thing that initially struck me was the programme order given its Darkness and Light title: rather than beginning with the ‘dark’ of the war-orientated Dante Sonata and moving forwards into ‘light’, this item was sandwiched between the carefree atmospheres of Les Rendezvous and Façade. Was it for logistical reasons? With twenty-minute intervals between successive ballets and a stage time of little more than sixty minutes, this did not seem likely.
So, first up in this triple bill was the thrilling and highly technical Les Rendezvous, over eighty years young and as sprightly as ever. Based upon a group of friends meeting in a park, the BRB dance troupewere equal to the task, each of the eight divertissements taken in their stride. To the easy-listening music of Daniel Auber (orchestrated by Constance Lambert) it is based upon his opera L’Enfant prodigue, French in flavour but with a dash of English relish. Antony Ward’s costumes revealed the delights of a summery 1930’s bank holiday – striped blazers and boaters for the boys, spotted adornments on the dresses for the girls in genuine period gear – matching a backdrop landscape of an exaggerated sun and impressionistic trees; it set the scene perfectly although I did miss the park railings and gate of an earlier production. This absence gave license for the lighting of BRB regular Peter Teigen to expand the time frame beyond normal statutory park-opening times: the brightness of noon, through sunset to a full moon. The corps beautifully established the merry mood of the whole piece with their Entrée des Promeneurs, while the ageless Nao Sakuma and the light-footed Chi Cao (see photo) showed their togetherness in the Adage des Amoures, lovers who had only eyes for one another. This provided an ideal contrast for the Pas de Trois with Arancha Baselga playing off her suitors James Barton and Tzu-Chao Chou against one another – one of the many highlights of the show. Auber’s music enabled the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Philip Ellis to really blossom in the sunshine.
From this carefree atmosphere of the thirties the audience was fast-forwarded into the following decade with Dante Sonata. The item painted a grim picture of the war years, making the transformation even more striking – the programmed sequence had fallen into place! The costumes of Sophie Fedorovich clearly identified the two sides engaged in Ashton’s conflict: the wispy-white Children of Light in stark contrast to the sinister tormented Children of Darkness (see photo). As Ashton said it was a piece that depicted ‘the whole stupidity and devastation of war’ and both sets of ‘children’ inevitably suffered major losses. To this end the thundering harmonies and tonal effulgence of Franz Liszt’s music were the angels and demons of the work. Although again orchestrated by Constant Lambert, BRB decided to use Liszt’s original piano score, thereby demanding and receiving a virtuosic performance from Jonathan Higgins. His arresting Andante maestoso chords of the sonata’s Introduction suitably heralded the Children of Light, demonstrably led by Jenna Roberts, Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay. Samara Downs, the antagonistically hostile co-leader of the opposing Children of Darkness, infiltrated their movements, her body gyrations and gesticulations showing she meant business. Moving on to the first theme’s statement, its Presto agitato assai tempo introduced the aggressive and athletic Tyrone Singleton ably supplementing Downs’ vanguard action with support muscle. However the rages of the battle did have their moments of amnesty too: there was a ceasefire in the development section of Liszt’s fantasy sonata – portrayed by the beautiful playing of Higgins in the Andante sections, accompanied with some serene movement from all twelve Children of Light dancers. The final coda failed to produce a victor from this struggle; as the opening motive returned, it seemed that ‘Hope’ in the shape of a single figure between the two groups of protagonists, symbolised the message Ashton wanted his interpretation to leave on the audience. Although older than D-day itself, the style of dance did not appear out-dated and its rhetoric ever relevant today.
If the second item demanded maximum concentration, the third delivered a delightfully relaxed series of divertissements. Based on the nonsensical poetry of Edith Sitwell, Façade sent the audience home with a smile on their face. The fun began as the kilted and sporraned Mathias Dingman led Laura Day and Reina Fuchigami in a satirised version of the traditional Scottish jig. The Grampians gave way to the Alps as pig-tailed Jade Heusen took the role of a cute milkmaid, complete with stool, attended by her three lederhosen-clad mountaineers. There was jauntiness in her step as she went about her farmyard chores; using the fingers of her companions as udders was an amusing mime and stimulated a great response in the auditorium. Looking as pretty as a picture and sporting a cheeky feather (see photo) we saw Elisha Willis merrily dancing the polka. And after further 1930s dances – the foxtrot and waltz prominently interspersed with muted trumpet breaks from the Sinfonia – Kit Holder and Lewis Turner were a couple of real swells, strutting along in perfect time to Walton’s catchy Popular Song. But even more popular among the Hippodrome audience of June 4th was the final individual number, the Tango Pasodoble of Céline Gittens and the versatile Rory Mackay. With fixed smile, excessive make-up, exaggerated wig and hideous dress, this Debutante Gittens carried it all off in superb style. Partnered by the slimy Dago of Mackay who sent shivers down the spine of his partner by running his finger up and down her back, generating spontaneous mirth all round – an action reprised on the stage curtains during the rapturous audience’s final reception.
Long may the Ashton traditions be revived, especially when performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet!