United Kingdom Selected Dance and Orchestral Excerpts: Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Koen Kessels (Conductor), Dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley (compere), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 31.1.2015 (GR).
Emmanuel Chabrier: España
Tchaikovsky: Concerto Classique (Suite No. 3)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Matryoshka (Jazz Suite No. 2)
Pietro Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana
Sergei Prokofiev: Cinderella: Act II pas de deux
Léo Delibes: Coppélia: Magic Scene
Frederick Delius: The Walk to the Paradise Garden
Sergei Prokofiev: Cinderella: Four Seasons and Coda
Maurice Ravel: La Valse
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake: Black Swan – pas de deux and Coda
It was good to see the Royal Ballet Sinfonia take centre stage at Symphony Hall rather than being half-hidden in the pit of their Hippodrome home for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s gala evening of orchestral favourites and classic highlights from their dance repertoire. The occasion allows two jewels in the city’s crown to be united, an annual showcase event not to be missed and this one on Jan 31st 2015 lived up to expectations (based upon the magnificent standards of previous years); it was knowingly received by a packed house. The proceedings were compèred as usual by Director David Bintley, now beginning his twentieth year with the company.
Koen Kessels (see photo) got the Sinfonia warmed up with an exuberant airing of Chabrier’s España, a fantasia based upon the composer’s experiences in Spain. Used for Roland Petit’s 1961 ballet of the same name, its gypsy rhythms were there for all to hear, whoever held sway – the sweeping strings under leader Robert Gibbs or the raucous trombones of Amos Miller, Maxwell Isley and David Gordon. The Sinfonia had spoken: the audience immediately knew not only that dance would never be far away from the heart of the programme, but also there would be some fun along the way. The Elmhurst School of Dance are celebrating ten years in Birmingham and their association with BRB is ongoing; the second item Concerto Classique was danced by them to music from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No.3, the Theme and Variations – Palacca. Choreographed by one of their mentors Lee Robinson, sixteen from their seniors put on an excellent show; the lead pair were outstanding and no doubt some of them will be fortunate enough to join the BRB troupe in due course. There was some spontaneous applause after one solo effort from the leading male dancer – and deservedly so!
The wealth of talent embraced by BRB was exercised in the third piece – a world première from their First Artist Ruth Brill, whose aptitude for choreography has palpably been encouraged by BRB, indicative of their policy to nurture talent from within. Her contribution to last year’s gala had been arranged to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; this year she chose the Jazz Suite No.2 of Dmitri Shostakovich. Entitled Matryoshka (the iconic Russian nesting dolls) it was an inspired choice and each of the three sections were highly appealing. In the Polka, Laura Day, Karla Doorbar and Miki Mizutani made charming dolls in the costumes of Lily Smith, ably supported by Max Maslem and Oliver Till; together with a lively score the five evoked in me the idyllic setting of a Victorian play room. Samara Downs cut an imposing figure in the subsequent Waltz, in control of her two attendants Feargus Campbell and Lachlan Monaghan. The eightsome Finale produced more Brill coordination, but out of basically conventional movement I struggled to relate to the Matryoshka concept.
The Sinfonia demonstrated why they are the busiest ballet orchestra in the UK (in demand at Covent Garden and all over the world, with several award winning recordings to their name) with a sonorous rendition of Pietro Mascagni’s Intermezzo from Cavaleria Rusticana; the strings simply flowed, while the closing diminuendo of Kessels seemingly cast a spell over a motionless Symphony Hall. Bintley has a huge reputation as a choreographer and one of his finest in narrative mood is his 2010 Cinderella to Prokofiev’s dynamic score. Reprising their success as Cinderella and the Prince, Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay danced the pas de deux from Act II. Using the full width of the specially constructed stage in front of the orchestra, their dazzle and sparkle matched their sequins, a pair of lovers with only eyes for each other.
With talk in the interval as to who might be the ‘guest’ performer in the excerpt from Act II of Delibes’ Coppélia, it turned out it was none other than Bintley himself, playing the inventor Dr Coppélius, paired with Momoko Hirata as Swanilda. With a combined choreography of Marius Petipa, Enrico Cecchetti and Peter Wright and the narrative of E.T.A. Hoffman, success as a ballet is almost guaranteed, but it still requires two fine character actors and dancers to pull off the scene where the inventor’s doll (the substituted Swanilda) comes to life. It is one of those amusing passages of which ballet-buffs never tire and this was a moment to treasure. It was a magnificent advert for the forthcoming tour of the full Coppélia (Edinburgh Feb 4-7, Birmingham Feb 24-28, Salford Mar 4-7, Plymouth Mar 26-28). The BRB company also take their productions overseas, but for this particular event they did not have to travel far, just a few blocks away from their recently renovated rehearsal rooms in Hurst Street.
Another English treasure followed, The Walk to the Paradise Garden, the incidental music from Delius’ opera A Village Romeo and Juliet. This time it was the turn of the woodwind section of the Sinfonia to excel with the first oboe making a poignant contribution. More Cinderella followed, the Four Seasons and Coda from Act I, with Mizutani returning as a lovely Spring, the other three seasons being represented by Yaoqian Shang as Summer, Downs’ second appearance on stage as Autumn and Delia Matthews as Winter. Bintley in his introduction said he had never been entirely satisfied with his choreography of this divertissement (which in the fairy tale complements the transformation of Cinderella from rags to finery) and had made certain revisions. Original or amended, to me both seemed to depict the bursting of spring, the fulfilment of summer, the gusts of autumn and the sharpness of winter (although I did miss the coach party of frogs and lizards).
The final orchestral number was Ravel’s La Valse. This resulted in some memorable orchestral playing, notably sterling work from the percussion section, a superlative solo from Gibbs and first-rate piano playing from the ever-reliable Jonathan Higgins. It proved once again that the CBSO is not the only top class orchestra in Birmingham. The most popular of ballet bonbons closed the entertainment: the ‘Black Swan’ pas de deux and Coda from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to the proven choreography of Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa and Peter Wright. Two of BRB’s finest took the stage, Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton. Gittens’ ability to instantly freeze was precision itself and the traditional multiple pirouettes breathtaking, while the leaps and bounds of Singleton suddenly made the stage look small.
This was a wonderful five star evening!