Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Carmina burana and Serenade - London Coliseum

Performance: 19 - 21 March 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 20 March 2015

Birmingham Royal Ballet 'Carmina Burana'. Photo: Bettina Strenske

This celebratory double bill from Birmingham Royal Ballet presented ballets that were significant trailblazers. George Balanchine’s Serenade founded the school of American ballet; and David Bintley’s Carmina burana was the path-finding, emblematic opening to his directorship of the company, five years’ after its relocation to Britain’s second city. Although the ballet has remained in the company’s repertoire since its premiere in 1995 it has not been seen in London for 19 years.

The historic link between these two works is that Serenade was choreographed and Carmina burana composed (by Carl Orff) – over the same three-year period between 1934 and 1936. It was Orff’s intention to have his music represented by dance as part of a holistic package alongside visual action on stage, but very few choreographers have accepted the challenge.

Listening to Orff’s powerful and eclectic musical mix, it’s impossible to visualise movement on anything other than an epic scale. Bintley had a long time to think it through. He decided to choreograph Carmina burana on his first encounter with the music, when studying at the Gulbenkian Institute, aged just 18; but he had to wait until he came to direct his own company to bring this dream to fruition. By that time – 21 years’ later – the early spark of inspiration in the Gulbenkian Library had kindled into a concept with the power and resilience of an Olympic flame.

Bintley’s Carmina burana is both timeless and deliciously counter-intuitive, as evidenced by his opening sequence that takes the force of the thumping, cataclysmic O Fortuna movement – one of the most popular pieces of classical music (most will recognise it immediately, although far fewer will know its title) – and visualises it, not in a huge cast cramming the stage, but in a solo performed by a blindfolded woman wearing an elegant shift mini-dress and stilettoes! This opening lasts for just two-and-a-half minutes but in that time Samara Downs’ off-kilter, shoulder-sloping movement as Fortuna, channelling both seduction and vulnerability – in a peculiar mix of temptress and victim – sets the scene for a spectacular, quirky and highly inventive work. While Orff’s cantata takes austere medieval poetry as its starting point, Bintley begins with a high-class call girl and ends with said girl cavorting with a vicar stripped to his Calvin Klein’s. It really shouldn’t work but it does.

Philip Prowse’s designs enhance the timelessness of Bintley’s morality ballet. Simple in concept but big in scale; from the giant crucifixes that twice descend from the flies to hover over the performers’ heads and the massive Pink Floyd-style brick wall that slices diagonally across the Coliseum stage, sometimes with starlight shimmering through the mortar; to the cartoonish bald, big-bellied men feasting on a banquet of roast swan. It is as if an adult anime comic has been brought to life in movement.

A few years’ ago, William Tuckett created The Seven Deadly Sins for The Royal Ballet to the music of Kurt Weill, which had a similar comic-book design but in more than one sense Bintley got there first since his ballet – set to music by Weill’s exact contemporary in Weimar Germany – is also about sin. Gluttony, avarice, lust, covetousness all feature in his tale of how three “men of the cloth” (described here as Seminarians) fall from grace through their various encounters with loutishness, alcohol and sex.

The counter-intuitive element sometimes goes so far astray that it disconnects: for example, the only tenor aria is sung in falsetto to demonstrate the suffering of the roasting swan yet the choreography – danced enticingly by Jenna Roberts (as said swan) – is seductively burlesque and the big-bellied gluttons are undeniably comic. The combination of these musical and visual effects is disconcerting.

Carmina burana is a huge musical beast for any choreographer to tame and it is sometimes a struggle for Bintley’s choreography to register against the power of the music with the Ex Cathedra choir stacked up in the boxes on both sides of the stage. But, like a rodeo cowboy wrestling a steer, Bintley keeps pulling us back to his visual interpretations on stage with thematic episodes that keep his narrative on track with the music in a spectacle that is often surprising and – with just a few momentary lapses in the middle sections – always absorbing.

Despite his solitary opening, Bintley deliberately aimed to make his mark in Birmingham with a home-baked ballet that showcased the cultural talents of his company and the city. The Ex Cathedra choir is an Associate Artist of Birmingham Town Hall; the Royal Ballet Sinfonia is BRB’s resident orchestra; and it takes most of the BRB dancers to populate Bintley’s choreography. At every level, this combination of “Brummie” talent was outstanding. I could have watched it and heard it all over again, even without an interval.

Balanchine’s Serenade is 80 years’ old and BRB has been performing it for a quarter of that time. It is ageless and as refreshing as an iced peach Bellini on a scorching day. Legend has it that the various structures and iconic emblems of the ballet were matters of happenstance: Balanchine started with 17 ballerinas because that’s the number of students he had on the day that he began the work; one comes late on stage, because the student arrived late to rehearsal and, later, when her hair began to tumble out of its bun, he liked the effect so much that he kept it in the ballet.

The Birmingham ballerinas were well drilled and harmonised across this visual interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s luscious melodies, in pretty patterns linked to the academic rigor of classical technique. Amongst the soloists, Momoko Hirata really shone with her fast attack and rapid spins, offset by Elisha Willis exuding a cool, blonde, all-American elegance. These New Yorker and Bostonian influences are extended to the West Coast with Céline Gittens’ laid-back, freer style. Chi Cao and Tyrone Singleton were elegant cavaliers in the two lead male roles.

This was a very fine double-bill that served multiple reminders of the international credentials of BRB; the cultural significance of Birmingham within the UK; the world-class, timeless choreography and artistic leadership of David Bintley; and the superb ensemble of dancers he has assembled in Birmingham. It was an excellent way for London to help celebrate Bintley’s 20th and the company’s 25th anniversaries.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards.

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