Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Shakespeare Triple Bill & The Tempest - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 11 - 15 October 2016
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 14 October 2016

Birmingham Royal Ballet's 'The Tempest'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performances reviewed: 10 & 13 October

The Bard has been liberally celebrated across the world in this year that marks the 400th anniversary of his death and Birmingham Royal Ballet – perhaps mindful of their closer proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon than any other dance company – has made Shakespeare the major focus of their year.

This cultural representation of the “engine room” of England arrived this week at Sadler’s Wells with a new full-length interpretation of The Tempest, preceded by a triple bill of other works inspired by Shakespeare’s writing, comprising Jessica Lang’s Wink (a danced ode to his Sonnets); The Moor’s Pavane, subtitled Variations on the theme of Othello, made by José Limón in 1949; and The Shakespeare Suite, a kind of ‘Shakespeare Shuffle’ themed on several plays and set to the eponymous jazz score of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, made by David Bintley back in 1999.

It was the vintage work – created at least fifty years before any of the others – that stood out from this clutch of Shakespeare tributes. In his acclaimed masterpiece of gesture-infused characterisation, Limón squeezes the essence of the Othello narrative and distils it all into a capsule of the emotion, subtleties and grandeur of Shakespeare’s text to create a wordless alternative that nonetheless exudes the same intensity of power and passion. Stripped bare of set and using just four characters – Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Emelia – it has become the lasting legacy of the prolific Mexican-American dancer/choreographer (who died in 1972).

Whether Bintley’s newest full-length ballet will enjoy such lasting significance is far from assured. The BRB director is certainly to be congratulated in many respects, not least in the extent of his faithfulness at representing the Bard’s final play. It has suffered so much in terms of innovative treatments in recent years – on film, on stage and in dance – that one can often lose sight of the original context. Bintley has eschewed what he has described as the ‘post-colonial rationalisation of Caliban’ – as a cipher, I believe, for a modern tendency to set the play in different ways (whether it’s Helen Mirren as a female Prospera in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film; or a recent stage adaptation that contrived the action amongst ship-wrecked containers on a beach). Bintley is having none of this and he sticks largely to a conventional view of Shakespeare’s action and its setting.

The set is splendidly designed (by Rae Smith) with an impactful opening to represent the storm that destroys Alonso’s ship. Bintley’s direction cleverly creates effects for which the dancers are themselves largely in control (albeit, utilising regular stints of aerial flying and puppetry), which provides a powerful representation of the tempest and the magical powers of Prospero. I was less enamoured of the lighting, which seemed for the most part to be far too dull.

In the same way that Bintley distrusts externally-driven special effects, he seems also to avoid extending the classical ballet vocabulary into the grabbling, pseudo-wrestling holds and gymnastic lifts that are the staple of many neoclassical choreographers. Although, he is happy to add quirky movement to establish characterisation, and even to create some acrobatic movement for comedic effect, his language sticks closely to the British style of classical ballet. So much so, that one is often caught thinking of the great ballets of Sir Frederick Ashton: his The Dream and Ondine, for example, came to mind during the two main pas de deux.

Sally Beamish’s score seems largely to comprise layers of short, sharp, overly-literal descriptive phrasing; thus, for example, we have a wavering trombone giving vent to the imagery of drunkenness. Where there is a melodic theme that could be memorable, as for example, in the pas de deux that represents the first encounter between Miranda and Ferdinand, the flow is altered by having drum rolls layered on top and the melodic lines from the strings being interrupted by dissonant brass. Overall, the music seems to be largely concerned with describing scenes d’action rather than providing memorable melodies that help capture the image of the dance.

The second act is taken over by a long, bacchanalian fiesta, led by a strange-looking horned and furry beast that turns out to be Pan (the God of wine and revelry), supported by what appears to be a Chilean folk dance ensemble. It was clearly necessary for the director to give some dance to his corps de ballet and it does represent the tradition of a festivity-based conclusion to classical ballet but it all goes on for far too long.

Overall, Bintley and the BRB staff have achieved several crisp and elegant dances, which are superbly performed by these excellent dancers. Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley give lyrical interpretations of the Miranda/Ferdinand romance in two beautifully observed duets, which run from fascination and playfulness through to a meaningful and sincere love. Iain Mackay presents Prospero with gravitas and authority; and Mathias Dingman provides a different, earthier, but nonetheless impactful vision of Ariel than is perhaps conventional. James Barton and Valentin Olovyannikov bring comedy relief in their respective roles as Trinculo (the jester) and Stephano (the permanently inebriated butler); both excellently caricatured by the movement motifs ascribed by the choreographer.

Tyrone Singleton gave double duty to Othello in the triple bill, with a dignified account of the Moor in Limón’s masterpiece, followed by a caricatured representation of the same role in Bintley’s The Shakespeare Suite. And, in The Tempest he performed the role of Caliban. His initial entry, disguised as a conch shell, was well contrived; and his was a powerful performance of a role taken back to its wild, sub-human and reluctantly servile state.

Wink was an interesting – and very different – appetiser for these later narrative-based ballets, much more abstract in its representation of the moods of Shakespeare’s sonnets, set against a new score by Jakub Ciupinski (with whom Lang has worked before) and with a stage design focused on moveable panels – black on one side, white, the other – not far removed from the size of upturned table-tennis tables. Lang establishes some beautiful group shapes and the ascetic purity of her work is enhanced by the costumes of Elaine Garlick and Suzanne Parkinson.

The Shakespeare Suite brought something different, both in the eponymous jazz score (played here by Colin Towns’ Mask Orchestra) and the whacky, offbeat cut-down interpretations of several Shakespearean relationships. I recall seeing a farce at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, several years ago, that professed to do the whole of Shakespeare in 40 minutes. This suite comes in at 39 minutes and, while it doesn’t “do the whole of Shakespeare” by any means, it certainly covers several of his best-loved dysfunctional pairings.

Bintley’s choreography – created to mark the centenary of Ellington’s birth and now resurrected to mark the quadricentennial of Shakespeare’s death – is not a slave to the structure of the original music, omitting some parts and using others for means not intended by the composers. However, the same essence of distilling each relationship to a capsule of no more than three minutes lies at the heart of his intention in this jazz-infused sprint relay.

It’s often witty, sometimes ribald, always quirky and visually appealing, largely invoked by Jasper Conran’s unique design style, which puts Richard III in an assassin’s dark suit and cool shades; Macbeth in a fiery red wig and striped kilt; and Othello in dreadlocks. It’s a fun piece with which to end the triple bill and create a bridge across to the same choreographer’s latest work, three days’ later.

Both Bintley ballets employ the historic tradition of danced curtain calls, which helps to establish an ending of infectious joy that translates well to the audience. One continues to feel that he is single-handedly updating the British choreographic tradition with new additions, and that is certainly worthy of our sustained applause.

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until 15 October

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

Main photo: Bill Cooper

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