Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet in Autumn Glory: Checkmate/ Symphonic Variations/ Pineapple Poll at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 18 - 19 October 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 21 October 2011

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ninette de Valois' 'Checkmate' 18-19 Oct, Sadler's Wells

Reviewed: 19 October (matinee)

Returning from the sweltering tropical heat of the South Pacific, I had hardly time to drop off my suitcase before heading to Sadler’s Wells for a programme that glorifies autumn in a trilogy of the most quintessential English ballets. It all seemed an especially apt way to be welcomed home.

These are amongst the most important treasures in the heritage of developing a British style of ballet, comprising the prewar *Checkmate* (1937), the most significant work made by Ninette de Valois (the founder of the Royal Ballet companies) with a bespoke score by Sir Arthur Bliss and remarkable, iconic designs by E. McKnight Kauffer; Frederick Ashton’s choreographic masterpiece, Symphonic Variations, made soon after the end of the second world war in 1946, and indelibly hallmarked by the serene designs of Sophie Fedorovitch ; and the peculiar, but loveable, slice of Rule Britannia in John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll, which was made for the BRB’s direct predecessor (Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet) in 1951, and is brought into vivid, comic-book life by Osbert Lancaster’s colourful designs. I particularly mention the three designers since their timeless contribution to these three works is as vital to their ongoing longevity as the choreography itself. All credit must go to the Birmingham Royal Ballet for keeping this heritage alive and in such good shape.

The art deco designs and crushing allusions to the impending threat to humanity from the prospect of an all-encompassing world war firmly date Checkmate as a slice of history with socio-political as well as balletic significance. The war was to take its revenge since the original costumes and designs for Checkmate were lost when the Vic-Wells Ballet had to flee Holland just ahead of the German invasion in 1940; and the ballet wasn’t restored until 1947. While the evocative atmosphere of the late 1930s remains axiomatic to the production, this cast struggled with some key aspects of the choreography, notably in the ensemble work for the red chess pieces and the performance of both the first Red Knight (Matthew Lawrence) and the Black Queen (Céline Gittens), neither of whom successfully conveyed to me the sense of apocalyptic struggle that their combat was designed to suggest. The Knight’s failure to kill the Queen is the key to the ballet’s message and yet the motive for this gladiatorial reticence remained unclear in this iteration. Nevertheless, it is always a pleasure to be reacquainted with this touchstone of British ballet, and a delight that this limited remnant of de Valois’ choreography (only 4 of her 200 works have survived since the 1950s) remains in such good condition.

BRB dealt its very best hand with the casting of Symphonic Variations and it seems amusing that when the Royal Ballet seems so concerned with issues of “British Style” that it’s Birmingham counterpart delivers said style with such conviction in a cast that includes dancers who initially learned their ballet in China (Chi Cao), Chile (César Morales), Japan (Nao Sakuma) and Australia (Elisha Willis) joining two homegrown Royal Ballet School graduates (Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley). Symphonic Variations is a vicious ballet to master, not just in terms of the alternating, contrasting periods of relentless pace and complete stillness but in the complex interactions of musicality and rhythm amongst the sextet. The BRB dancers – and their coaches, led by the ballet’s owner and custodian, Wendy Ellis Somes – deserve great credit for meeting this challenge almost fifteen years since Symphonic Variations was last performed by the company

We rarely get to see Pineapple Poll in London, which is a shame since Cranko’s one-act masterpiece is such great fun. It is pure Gilbert & Sullivan – albeit without any of W. S. Gilbert’s lyrics – in a jaunty tale of the handsome Captain Belaye of HMS Hot Cross Bun, who turns the heads and captures the hearts of all the girls in the port. If I had reservations about Matthew Lawrence’s performance in Checkmate, his rendition of Belaye was a masterpiece of comic caricature and virtuoso nautical dance, splendidly matched by the sweetness of Ambra Vallo’s performance as Pineapple Poll. The whole rollicking adventure was delivered with upmost respect for John Cranko’s creation and a creditable finesse in the performance from the whole cast.

This was a seamless and meaningful trilogy rather three disconnected works being thrown together for the sake of creating a show, as appears to be so often the case in programming decisions elsewhere. Ninette de Valois believed that any national ballet company must maintain a repertoire that – amongst other qualities – reflects ‘the spirit of its native land’ and I congratulate BRB for keeping this laudable intention alive and in such very good health.

Birmingham Royal Ballet are at Sadler’s Wells until Saturday.“:

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