United Kingdom Glenn Buhr, Beauty and the Beast: Dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Philip Ellis. Sadler’s Wells, London, 14.10.2014. (JPr)
Belle: Elisha Willis
The Beast: Tyrone Singleton
The Wild Girl: Yaoqian Shang
The Merchant: Michael O’Hare
The Raven: Tzu-Chao Chou
Vanité: Samara Downs
Fière: Angela Paul
Monsieur Cochon: Jonathan Payn
Choreography: David Bintley
Design: Philip Prowse
Lighting: Mark Jonathan
I’ve never been a Disney person so have never seen the 1991 Beauty and the Beast film or the subsequent stage show. I am more familiar with a version of this tale from the two American cult TV series of the same name; the first dating from 1987 that focussed on the relationship between Vincent, a noble man-beast, part of a secret Utopian community of social outcasts living in a subterranean sanctuary with Catherine, an assistant New York DA. This loosely inspired a 2012 ‘reboot’ that soon enters its third season, now however Vincent’s DNA was mutated as part of an Afghanistan ‘supersoldier’ programme and Catherine is a NY homicide detective. Both shows concentrate on how Vincent has an empathetic bond that senses Catherine’s emotions, and is her guardian, as well as, becoming romantically involved with her. Coincidentally, I returned home after this ballet to catch-up with the latest new episode of that latter series.
Here Belle lives with her merchant father and two sisters (called ‘Vanity’ and ‘Proud’). He is desperately awaiting for ‘his ship to come in’ and they appear lost at sea whilst he still needs to pay off his debts. Eventually they are sighted and the Merchant sets off to reclaim his goods and get his money. He asks his daughters to choose a gift for him to bring back; the two sisters demand expensive gowns and lavish jewellery, but Belle only wants a rose. On his way back, there is a storm and the Merchant and his men are robbed of their cargo. The Merchant takes shelter in a seemingly empty castle but he is treated to a feast of fine food and drink served by unseen hands. In the morning, with the storm over, his trunk is full of fine gowns and jewels. As he leaves the castle he remembers Belle’s request and is taking a rose from a briar when a terrifying Beast appears who rages at the Merchant’s ingratitude for all his hospitality by stealing the flower. The Merchant tries to pacify the Beast by explaining Belle’s simple request. When he hears this the Merchant is allowed to leave unharmed – providing he sends his youngest daughter to live in the castle …
Birmingham Royal Ballet have apparently ignored the Disney version of this story and concentrated on this original seventeenth-century Perrault version, with – like most folk tales – its post-pubescent symbolism and added undertones of Gothic horror. However during what is a rather short evening Act I in David Bintley’s 2008 revision of an original 2003 production does not hang around too long and the storytelling is not that clear. In the prologue we first see Belle in an elaborate library – is she just bookish or is she reading a book of fairy tales and dreaming up what we will now see … I was not sure. We see how the hunting-obsessed Prince and his retinue are turned into animals by a Wotan-like Woodsman and the fox they are hunting becomes a flame-haired Wild Child. There was very little audience reaction in Act I even over the antics of Bella’s two comedy sisters (Angela Paul and Samara Downs) competing over who can be more proud or vain while the bailiffs strip their father (Michael O’Hare) of his assets. Monsieur Cochon (Jonathan Payn) offers to settle his debts by marrying one of the sisters who squabble over which of them it will be. (Cochon of course means ‘pig’ so no guesses as to what he looks like.) This clearly emphasises how Bella really is the rose between these two spiteful thorns.
In Philip Prowse’s designs the Beast’s castle with all its stuffed birds as hunting trophies has a hint of the gilded opulence of Versailles about it, although is often in nearly all-pervading gloom. Candles light up on their own, a flagon of wine lifts itself off the table and fills a goblet and the arms of his chair suddenly envelope the Merchant. Who knew that a collection of ravens is an unkindness … I looked it up? Anyway at the end of Act I, the corps de ballet represent ravens (‘Birds of the Air’) who simulate with increasing intensity scattering formations of flight (led by Tzu-Chao Chou) before eventually carrying Bella off to the castle. Why the emphasis on ‘eventually’? Well, it is because this sequence goes on far too long and seems like it is padding for a story being otherwise told too quickly with too much miming without any significant dancing.
Act II begins with a lavish ballroom scene and allows some of the Prince’s courtiers-turned-into-animals to dance as the animals that they now are. Amongst others there is a solo from a hare and also a fox who duets with the Wild Girl (the eye-catching Yaoqian Shang) in a rip-off of the Puss in Boots/White Cat variation in Sleeping Beauty. The emotional heart of this ballet is the scenes between Belle and the Beast that now bring it to a climax; nothing was overdone and I got genuinely involved in the story for the first time. At first Belle resists the Beast’s entreaties to marry him and is longing to go home. If she does not return before the rose she has been given dies the Beast will die of a broken heart. Elisha Willis as Belle dances with great elegance and eloquence and small changes of facial expression reveals her strong feelings as she gradually moves from fearing the Beast towards compassion and love for him. With great hints of a Romeo and Juliet ballet he eventually neatly transforms back into the Prince and early on in their charming and tender duet – the best thing in the ballet – there were wonderful moments when Bella was confused who this Prince was and went looking for her Beast. Throughout Tyrone Singelton excelled in showing all the Beast’s longing for Belle to end his loneliness, as well as, his anguish at his ugliness and wild despair at her rejection, especially when she refuses the ring he offers her. His anger and self-loathing erupts in a wonderfully expressive solo when he abandons all hope for the happy ending he longs for and believes Belle will never return to him.
How satisfying this all is for modern children who know the Disney version I’m not sure, but as an older kid(!) I got involved in the story towards the end. Perhaps for those in the know there are too many references to other ballets; apart from those already mentioned Cinderella and La fille mal gardée came to mind. Nevertheless the BRB’s artists dance with their usual élan and conviction and the standout vignette was Marion Tait (the company’s assistant director) bent double as a mean old crone, Grandmère, one of a number of comic characters in this ballet.
One final thought – it is a shame the ballroom scene comes at the start of Act II because this Beauty and the Beast ends rather weakly and could do with a wedding scene. Even though the courtiers and the Wild Child are now either, respectively, human or animal again David Bintley was quoted in the programme mentioning ‘the natural world and the animals in it, and the awful things that humans do to that natural world and themselves’ and this is not resolved with little evidence that the Prince won’t go hunting again and has learnt his lesson. Perhaps I am expecting too much?
Glenn Buhr’s score relied a little too much on brass and percussion, was very Russian (Shostakovich and Prokofiev came to mind from time to time) and lacked some lyricism for me at certain moments. Nevertheless the Royal Ballet Sinfonia were on good form as usual and under Philip Ellis provided an excellent atmospheric musical accompaniment to the dancing.
For more about the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.brb.org.uk.