United Kingdom Montague, The King Dances and Orff, Carmina Burana: Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Paul Murphy & Koen Kessels (conductors), Birmingham Hippodrome,, Birmingham. 17.6.2015 (GR).
The King Dances
La Nuit, Le Diable & Cardinal Mazarin – Iain Mackay
Le Roi & Le Roi Soleil – William Bracewell
Selene, la Lune – Yijing Zhang
Fortuna – Céline Gittens
Naïve Boy – Jamie Bond
Boiling Rage – Mathias Dingman
Sick with Love – Tyrone Singleton
Choreography: David Bintley
Designs: Katrina Lindsay (The King Dances); Philip Prowse (Carmina Burana)
Lighting: Peter Mumford
This Double Bill from Birmingham Royal Ballet celebrated Director David Bintley’s twentieth anniversary with the company, putting on both Carmina burana the first ballet he choreographed for them back in 1995, alongside his latest creation, The King Dances, receiving its world premiere at their Birmingham Hippodrome home. Bintley is BRB, first and last, but on 17th June, 2015, the order of the two ballets meant that the last became first and the first became last.
In 1653 the 14 year old Louis XIV of France danced the role of the sun god Apollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit, forever earning himself the soubriquet of the Sun King. In The King Dances, Bintley gives his own adaptation on the very beginnings of ballet, when performers were almost exclusively male. This tradition was retained: the male dancers outnumbered their partners 14:1. One parallel, thankfully not replicated, was the duration of the work – the twelve hours had been shrunk into thirty-five minutes. The original half-day time-span is nevertheless cleverly implied by dividing the ballet into four ‘Watches’ of three hours each between 18:00 and 06:00 (artistic licence reducing the customary four hour long duty spell to three). The First Watch begins as ballet might have done in the seventeenth century at the Salle du Petit-Bourbon in the Louvre Palace; at the coucher du roi everything was in darkness save for eight luminous flame torches. Iain Mackay was La Nuit, accompanied by four candelabra-bearing messieurs. The music of Stephen Montague for the opening had been based upon his composition Intrada and suggested a courtly, even cosy situation, free of any sinister bodings the ensuing night might bring. Collectively the dance movement was manly but within the confines of virtuosic Baroque dance; one feature described by Bintley as ‘the elbow is collapsed into the waist and the movement comes from the wrist’ was particularly eye-catching. The elegant period costumes of Katrina Lindsay depicted French nobility, right down to their breeches, white hose and elaborate footwear.
The divertissements during The Second Watch began with four masked and wig-bearing male Mesdames, in step with a catchy four-note motif from Montague (the moon?). An exciting phase to the music followed together with an impressive crescendo from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy. It was entertainment fit for a king and in the moonlight William Bracewell as Le Roi took the initiative in a tactile pas de deux with Yijing Zhang as the goddess Selene; their graceful gyrations were an ideal match for the pleasant, slow tempo melodic tune from Montague. After midnight in The Third Watch, Mackay reappeared as Le Diable and although the werewolves of Jonathan Caguioa and Max Maslen were well tooled up, I did not find the ambiance over-terrifying although the image of the flexible Bracewell as the spirit of the king was mesmerising. The appealing music of Montague continued with some march-like strains as the King Louis XIV’s arch rival Cardinal Mazarin (Mackay again) entered the action in The Fourth Watch. After the symbolic L’Honneur, La Grâce, La Renommée and La Valeur had paid homage to Bracewell, Le Roi Soleil appeared in spectacular fashion, engineered by the superb lighting of Peter Mumford (see photo).
If it is possible to add to the passion and drama of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as most frequently seen in purely concert form, then Bintley is the man to do it. After all, Orff meant it to have a dance element and in 1995 Bintley glorified the cantata with his own brand of modern-day morality play. His choreography tracked the work’s five basic sections and has always been a popular addition to BRB’s repertoire; this 2015 edition was as riveting as ever. Dancing the main role in the first section, Fortuna, Empress of the World, Céline Gittens deployed considerable guile and allure with her jerky, angular movements in time to the familiar rhythms and staccato music of Orff, she was both his whirling wheel of Fate and the fertile Queen Hecuba referred to in the text. In her little black number, the seven Seminarians never stood a chance, the crucifixes on designer Philip Prowse’s backdrop pushed to the back of these divinity student’s minds. The unseen chorus of Ex Cathedra provided a rousing start, an excellent advert for the locally based ensemble, full of ‘Spice’ and to my recall a much superior sound than for the 2011 production.
The set for the second scene Spring comprised a miscellany of white laundry hanging out to dry on a washing line – more prowess from Prowse. This not only indicated a comfy domesticity but also facilitated dancer entry. The first two girls, in white smocks and little black wigs appeared, heavily pregnant, symbolic of a blooming and radiant Phoebus in Orff’s libretto. A third arrived, babe in papoose attached to her chest who upon turning revealed a second on her back – a detail that always raises a laugh. Bintley’s take on the ‘merry face of spring’ as chanted by the chorus was manifested in human form, and how charming it was, realising the translated mediaeval lines of Johann Scmeller: They glory and rejoice in honeyed sweetness, who strive to make use of Cupid’s prize; at Venus’s command let us glory and rejoice in being Paris’s equals. Ah! Ah, indeed. Commingling with the mums and their nursemaids was Jamie Bond as the Naïve Boy, the first Seminarian to be given the cold shoulder.
The ever-exceptional Elisha Willis led the bobbing blond ponytails of the girls On the Village Green. With Laura Day, Angela Paul and Laura Purkiss in support, the four captured a gaiety and youthfulness that had the boys in hot pursuit. As the numbers swelled I counted thirteen pairs from the corps de ballet for their precision-requiring chair routine (see photo), this highlight emphasised the strength in depth at BRB. The chorus brought the high jinks to a close with these lines from these cantiones profanae: If all the world were mine from the sea to the Rhine, I would do without it if the Queen of England would lie in my arms. Hey!
In the Tavern introduced us to the character Boiling Rage, the archetypal angry young man of John Osborne, danced by Mathias Dingman. His first accompaniment was Grant Doyle’s baritone solo Burning inside with violent anger and bitterness. They fitted well together, both eager for the pleasures of the flesh rather than salvation. Bintley and Prowse had devised a neat twist too for the entry of their Roast Swan: a large eggshell opened for Daria Stanciulescu to hatch from, preening her feathers in front of the drooling Gluttons – corpulent Seminarians, now well down the road to depravity. They rolled around like sumo wrestlers facing up to their opponent. They hungrily seized upon Stanciulescu, each one hoping to get a tender slice of breast or a juicy leg. The high-pitched tenor who agonised with the ‘turning of the spit’ was the brilliant Jeremy Budd.
The decline of the Seminarians was complete soon after the garter-clad Tarts took to the stage, each one at their seductive best. Although the Nazi hierarchy adopted the wild rhythmic chants of Orff for their party rallies, they found some of the Latin lyrics too hot to handle, particularly in this Court of Love section. The delicate harmonies that begin Cupid flies everywhere generated some beautiful playing from the woodwind of the Sinfonia. And although Tyrone Singleton, stripping down to his Y-fronts must have had some of the ladies drooling, there was nothing too outrageous from Bintley and Prowse during the rave. Katie Trethewey handled the high tessitura of A girl stood in a red tunic pretty well. While there was nothing static about Gittens, now even more alluring in her matching outfit, her influence destroyed Singleton into his Sick with Love character. It was left to the big sound of the Sinfonia under Koen Kessels and Jeffrey Skidmore’s Ex Cathedra to bring about a rousing conclusion, much appreciated by a packed house.
I suspect many of those present at the Hippodrome had been attracted by another BRB premier.e, and whilst The King Dances did not disappoint, it was Carmina Burana that stole the show. With the emphasis on the male fraternity of seventeenth century France and the demise of the Seminarians, it was a great ‘boy’s night out’. This production of The King Dances will be the focus of a BBC Four documentary due to air in early September; David Bintley will retrace the steps of Louis XIV in locations around France and go backstage during his and the BRB team’s creation. The programme will also feature a full screening of the production.