A Dream of a Start to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare Celebrations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendelssohn & Chopin, Sir Frederick Ashton Double Bill: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia / Paul Murphy (conductor), Jonathan Higgins (piano), Birmingham Hippodrome, 17.2.2016. (GR)

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Mathias Dingman as Puck in The Dream (c) Bill Cooper

The Dream 

Principal Dancers:

Titania: Nao Sakuma
Oberon: Joseph Caley
Puck: Mathias Dingman
Bottom: Jonathan Caguioa


Music: Felix Mendelssohn arranged by John Lanchberry
Choreography: Frederick Ashton
Designs: Peter Farmer
Lighting: John B. Read 

A Month in the Country

Principal Dancers:

Natalia Petrovna, the wife: Delia Matthews
Beliaev, the tutor: Iain Mackay
Kolia,  the son: Mathias Dingman
Vera, the ward: Karla Doorbar
Katia, the maid: Yvette Knight
Rakitin, the admire: Jonathan Payn
Yslaev, the husband: Michael O’Hare


Music: Frederick Chopin (arranged John Lanchberry)

Choreography: Julia Trevelyan-Oman

Lighting: John B. Read

This month sees the launch of a calendar year of dance from Birmingham Royal Ballet that celebrates the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare. From the bard whose principal pull is the poetry of his colourful language, it may seem a trifle odd that adaptation of his plays and verse into the art form of ballet is not an ideal transposition. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream is no commonplace stage piece and Sir Frederick Ashton proved he was a doyen of choreographers when he delivered The Dream in 1964. Add today’s all-round expertise of Birmingham Royal Ballet and you have a winner, as the show at their West Midlands home of the Hippodrome proved on the evening of Feb 17th.

The central theme of Shakespeare’s original creation is love and its consummation in marriage. Condensing the five act text, Ashton focused on the breach and resolution in the long-standing union of Oberon and Titania – the Fairy King and Queen – along with the youthful love of the four mortals (omitting the forthcoming nuptials between the mature Theseus and Hippolyta). BRB demonstrate how well Ashton had combined the worlds of fancy and reality. Piggy in the middle of the imperial quarrel between Titania (Nao Sakuma) and Oberon (Joseph Caley) is the Changeling Indian Boy (George Ring, a member of BRB’s Dance Track programme) the innocent object of an unequivocal regal tug of war. While Titania is well supported by her fairy entourage of sixteen, Oberon has but one gofer, Puck – the effervescent Mathias Dingman. For me his was the top performance of the show: so explicit in gesture when undertaking his master’s instructions (or getting them all wrong), flitting in and out of the action, whether Scherzo-ing with the fairies or muscling in on the arguments of the humans and smoothly buzzing to and fro to ‘put a girdle round about the earth’.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is classed as a comedy, and this genre is predominantly retained in this balletic reworking by the two couples Lysander (Tom Rogers) and Hermia (Samara Downs), plus Demetrius (Jamie Bond) and Helena Laura Purkiss). Together with the magic juice of love-in-idleness, they illustrate that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ {Lysander 1.1.134} with a brilliant humorous mix of sophistication and burlesque. When Rogers and Downs first appear their movement gracefully portrays young love, in contrast to the scurrying chase of Purkiss after an animated Bond. But the cat gets hilariously thrown among the pigeons when Rogers and Bond (having had the love-potion treatment both fancy Purkiss. And later as utter confusion reigns, the choreography of all four is priceless. But my most memorable moment of the fantastic four is in the finale when they fleetingly team up with the ‘wrong’ partner – reminding me of Cosi fan tutte.

Naturally Sakuma and Caley had their high spot – an extended pas de deux prior to the finale. Although Titania has now agreed for her husband to monopolise the Indian Boy, she has not completely forgiven him for the spell he cast upon her and initially keeps him at arm’s length, repeatedly fending him off. But a combination of Caley’s persistence, athleticism, charm and basic sexual allure to the bewitching Nocturne of Mendelssohn, he reconciles his lover once more. Sakuma’s upper body twists and turns told their own story before she sensuously melts into her partner’s arms. Great stuff!

Ashton’s use of the ‘Rude Mechanicals’ is peripheral, although no adaptation of the Shakespearean masterpiece would be recognisable without Bottom; here Jonathan Caguioa having been mischievously been given an ass’s head by Puck fills the role from muzzle to hoof.  Although denied his Pyramus role by Ashton, I loved his reactions to the seductions of Sakuma, intertwining their legs, scratching his hooves upon the stage with relish and anticipation, together with some en pointe dressage. The weaver inevitably capitulates and with Sakuma as jockey they retire into her den.

Every slice of drama intermeshes into Mendelssohn’s score – predominantly Op 61, the Incidental Music he composed to accompany Shakespeare’s play, and premiered in 1843 (having been commissioned by the King of Prussia)> It is wonderfully executed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Paul Murphy and leader Robert Gibbs. For instance, the ethereal sound of the opening bars of the woodwind perfectly complementeed the mystical designs of the forest glade setting of Peter Farmer and the eerie lighting of John B. Read – the fairies completing this world of make-believe. And later when Titania joins her adoring train to weave their spell in ‘Ye spotted snakes’ their tripping movements are liltingly accompanied by girlish glee from members of the Birmingham Cathedral Choir (directed by Marcus Huxley). At the other end of the musical scale is the orchestral ‘Hee-haws’ that attend Bottom. As the two pairs both find true love, they step out in style to the Wedding March. The idyllic closing bars brought us full circle (like so many of the movements during an enchanting 55 min) the last word going to Puck to say ‘Goodnight’ from a peace ridden forest.

The source for A Month in the Country, the other half of this double bill, is the 1855 play from the Russian Ivan Turgenev. Although united by the choreography of Ashton, the overall disposition of the ballet changes from humour to pathos, a tale of unrequited love. It is assisted in no small part by the passionate music of Frederick Chopin, penetratingly lead by the piano playing of Jonathan Higgins. Premiered in 1976, Ashton is said to concentrate on the emotions of his characters, but I found his compression of the narrative equally riveting, thereby allowing the dancers to properly explore their personalities.

Three Chopin sources are employed. In the first, the strains of Là ci darem le mano reveals the cosy 19th century drawing room of Julia Trevelyan-Oman (lighting again from John B. Read) home to a well-to-do Russian family. At their leisure, a footman (Miles Gulliver) waits upon Natalia Petrovna (Delia Matthews) the lady of the house, entertaining her admirer Rakitin (Jonathan Payn). Her husband Yslaev (the stalwart Michael O’Hare) relaxes with his paper, apparently au fait with this third party’s attentions upon his wife. Katia the maid (Yvette Knight) glides in to remind her master it is time for him to leave. Draped over the chaise longue, idleness becomes Matthews. Her ward Vera (Karla Doorbar) enters to strut her stuff in front of the pair, before slumping into the master’s empty chair. The otherworldliness of Yslaev is stressed when he returns apparently having forgotten or lost something, an incident that serves to emphasise the boredom of Natalia. Kolia is introduced into the room and although Mathias Dingman’s ball skills were exemplary, I thought him a bit too mature for the part. As Chopin’s variations on Mozart change, so does the atmosphere – the handsome tutor, Beliaev (Iain Mackay) enters with a kite for Kolia; the music expresses the effect he has on those present. Beliaev demonstrates his prowess (though I thought Mackay more Latin lover than Prince Bolkonsky) watched by a jealous Rakitin, a glassy-eyed Vera and a coy Natalia. Rakitin shows he is just a pawn in Natalia’s life by storming off. Natalia and Beliaev have a formal pas de deux but as the hands Mackay and Matthews come together, it illustrates how apt this number from Don Giovanni (sung in the opera by the libertine and Zerlina) a delicious variation this by Chopin, vibrantly played by Higgins. But it’s an ‘Excuse Me’ and Vera demands some of the action with Beliaev. Kolia shows his tutorials have not been a complete waste of time and all four bring the opening music section to a close.

Rakitin resumes his attentions on the chaise longue and they have a pas de deux, but however doting the looks Payn gives Matthews, her thoughts fixate upon Beliaev, her distress now evident. Vera is also smitten by Beliaev, but however attractive the delightful Doorbar parades herself, Mackay prefers a cougar. Nevertheless their pas de deux is charming, danced to the most romantic of interludes from Fantaisie brillante on Polish Airs – the playing of Higgins so Chopinesque. Natalia is not amused and chides Vera who confesses she is in love; but Natalie will have none of it, even slapping her ward as the music portrays her angst. ‘What have I done’, she confesses to the ever supportive Rakitin. Wondering where his two admirers have gone, heartthrob Beliaev is never alone long and Katia now fancies her chances. Believing the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Knight delectably tempts him with a bag of bonbons: her pas de deux with Mackay is appropriately a happy–go-lucky affair. Beliaev ponders it all to another charming Polish air, lyrically floated by Higgins and the Sinfonia. Natalia returns from her breath of fresh air to pin a rose on Beliaev’s chest. Their unrequited love threatens to blossom along with the desire in Chopin’s score, Matthews gorgeously committing herself utterly to the music; yet her marriage vows bring doubt into the equation.

Their intimacy is interrupted by Vera as the third Chopin excerpt begins: Andante spianato et grande polonaise brillante. ‘If I can’t have him, you won’t either’ says Vera spilling the beans and dragging in Yslaev and Rakitin. Natalia assures her husband of her innocence. Shown the door; Koloa wants Beliaev to stay and sheds a tear. Natalia pleads forgiveness before displaying her desolation as she wistfully watches him go. Mackay stealthily returns for one last encounter, but Natalie is so distraught Matthews fails to notice; he leaves the flower she gave him on the floor, it will be one to press among her books as a poignant reminder.

A dream of a double bill from Ashton and BRB. Their Shakespeare Spring Season continues in Birmingham next week with the classic Romeo and Juliet; their production then tours to the Lowry, Sunderland Empire and the two Theatre Royals of Nottingham and Plymouth.

Geoff Read

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