Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Theme and Variations / Enigma Variations / The King Dances - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 16 & 17 October 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 21 October 2015

Birmingham Royal Ballet  - 'The King Dances'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Full marks to Birmingham Royal Ballet – and director David Bintley – for staging a diverse triple bill in this excellent mix of lightning-fast American ballet, an English classic and a glitzy new production evoking ballet’s origins in seventeenth century France. As BRB celebrates 25 years in this current guise – and Bintley marks 20 years at the company’s helm – this programme manages to create something new while looking back at both its own roots and at the origins of ballet itself.

George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations is classical ballet merged with the Daytona 500 at the Cavalcade Rodeo. It’s a white ballet done American-style; an homage by Balanchine, America’s adopted son, to his own ballet awakening and upbringing, in St Petersburg; to the steps of Petipa and the music of Tchaikovsky. First performed in New York in 1947, it remains one of the key works by Balanchine that have come to define the American style; but it also has a special place in the English Midlands, where it was the first work to be performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet, back in 1990.

Twenty five years on and BRB dancers are still in their element with the speed, panache and precision required by this rollercoaster ride of classicism. None more so than Momoko Hirata who was splendid from first to last in each of the principal ballerina’s fiendishly fast and complex variations. Elegance of line was paramount with her razor sharp outlines undiminished by the rapid speed of execution. Hirata has that rare quality of retaining an air of conservatism – in complete control of the precision of her movement – despite the challenging momentum of the music.

She is well matched by Joseph Caley as the lead man. He rattles through his challenging solo in the sixth (of twelve) variations and is a strong and sensitive partner to Hirata in the pas de deux that brings the work towards a close. The four supporting couples and the corps de ballet are further paragons of harmony, providing a strong analogy for the unity of a clearly happy company.

Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations followed as if a house party in Worcestershire had supplanted a sparkling weekend in New York; and it proved to be a painstakingly dull affair. Published in 1899, as Victorian England was about to give way to the Edwardian age, Edward Elgar’s set of variations on an original theme (sub-titled, My Friends Pictured Within) was the key to the door of his universal popularity as a composer. The fourteen variations are individually labelled with the nicknames of particular friends and – in 1968 – Ashton conceived a ballet to bring those people back to life, through the characteristics of movement aligned to Elgar’s musical biographies. It’s a peculiarly melancholic treatise on the value of friendship created by Ashton soon after being told that he was to step down as The Royal Ballet’s director.

It is – as has been said many times before – a rather pedestrian ballet (although it features both bicycle and tricycle); a dance theatre comedy of manners and mannerisms rather than conventional ballet. Feet rarely leave the floor as the various personalities of Elgar’s inner circle are portrayed largely in contemplative and leisurely states: in one case, it is actually the friend’s bulldog who is the music’s muse, rather than his master. In the feel of an indoors retreat it is not unlike Ashton’s later A Month in the Country (1976), although rather less happens in the Elgar household. An ear trumpet, deer stalker and checked-clothing galore seems now to reduce the whole set of influences to a comic-book pastiche; and regrettably, nothing in the performances of the BRB dancers elevates this above such gentle absurdity.

The King Dances is loosely based on Le Ballet de la nuit, the ballet de cour spectacle in which the young king, Louis XIV appeared as the Sun. Staged at the Salle du Petit-Bourbon in the Louvre on 23rd February 1653, it lasted for thirteen hours, beginning at sunset and ending at sunrise, featuring mythological figures in various nocturnal episodes. It made a lasting impact on the 14 year-old Louis, not only in nurturing his love of ballet, but also because he subsequently became known as The Sun King (Le Roi Soleil).

The action is divided into four quartiles, representing three-hourly segments in the journey from six o’clock in the evening until the Sun King’s glorious emergence with the dawn, at 6am, the next morning. Visually, Bintley and his designer Katrina Lindsay, capture the sumptuous spectacle of ballet de cour with the minimum of effort in a triumph of elegance over extravagance. The use of flaming torches and highly-reflective black flooring is most effective and Lindsay’s costumes merge period with a striking modernity. Similarly, the bespoke music by New York-born Stephen Montague – heavily themed by percussion and brass – brings a strong sense of the seventeenth century to a score that is profoundly modern.

Bintley’s choreography is carved from a highly expert knowledge of the age. Neat, baroque steps with small scissor-like jumps dominate a narrative flavour that also accommodates ideas about the political intrigue of France, one hundred years or so before the great Revolution.

As is also appropriate, this is a ballet dominated by men. It requires enough to populate a whole rugby union team and these BRB guys sizzle through the “night” like the burning torches that they carry. The sole woman – representing the moon – is the masked Selene (Yijing Zhang) dressed like a grown-up Tinkerbelle in layers of grey/blue tulle. But the moon is there but to be seen off by the Sun King; William Bracewell, resplendent in the closing scene, dressed in an outrageous perforated suit that is so golden as to appear fluorescent green, with the rays of the sun shooting every-which-way from his long and curly red hair. Tyrone Singleton emerges sinisterly from the blackness upstage, appearing in three of the quartiles as La Nuit, Le Diable (the devil) and Cardinal Mazarin (the protégée of the infamous Richelieu) who served as Chief Minister during the years of Louis XIV’s minority (he acceded to the throne, aged five).

The art of ballet de cour reached its apogee during Louis XIV’s reign with events becoming increasingly spectacular, in terms of décor, costumes and even special effects. These spectacles were arranged to celebrate significant events; and, always, to demonstrate a public assertion of wealth and power. As his own career as a dancer came to an end, in 1671 Louis XIV established the Académie Royale de Musique and he decreed that one major purpose of the new academy was to train professional dance performers. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, ballet in Italy and France was being recast into theatrical performances by professional dancers for paying audiences.

David Bintley has therefore brought an overdue reminder that Louis XIV’s love of performance was a crucial event in the evolution of classical ballet. The King Dances is a rare example of a new classical work, which has purpose and is done well.

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. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photos: Bill Cooper, courtesy BRB

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