Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Mixed Bill - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 15 & 16 October 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 17 October 2013

Birmingham Royal Ballet - 'Still Life at the Penguin Café' Great Auk. Photo: Bill Cooper

E=mc² / Tombeaux / Still Life at the Penguin Café
Performance reviewed: 15 October

After two fires, a daylong tussle with backstage computers that just said “No” and a consequent 20-minute delay in the curtains coming up, David Bintley, the artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet – and the choreographer of this entire triple bill, emerged at the front of stage to explain, with disarming charm, this catalogue of calamity and – as he said, honestly – “to buy a bit more time”. Bintley laid a bet that he would also buy the entire audience a drink in the nearby Shakespeare’s Head if his three works appeared as he had meant them to be, admitting as he did so, that he already knew this to be a wager he could not lose! After a further delay, the curtains finally came up around half-an-hour later than expected.

The unfortunate consequence of this delay was a conclusion at almost 11pm and several people left at the second interval, thus missing the last work, which must be regarded as one of Bintley’s finest masterpieces: Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe also qualifies for the additional accolade of being a most intelligent title with multiple meanings hidden in those six words. It manages the art of being both maudlin and upbeat; the former coming in the heightened sentimentality that clings to a work about endangered and extinct species (brilliantly brought to life by Hayden Griffin’s costume designs, both comical and realistic) and the latter in both a rousing and optimistic finale and ever-present through the uniquely life-affirming music of Simon Jeffes for his Penguin Café Orchestra. The sadness is enhanced through the knowledge that Jeffes and Griffin are no longer living. Incidentally, my 19 year-old daughter has seen this ballet eleven times and has never managed to get through it without crying!

Bintley articulates his concern for earth’s ecological balance in a series of vignettes featuring these lost and disappearing creatures from the opening sequence of The Great Auk ( Ruth Brill ) through to a human family from the rain forest (Mother and Father played by Cèline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton with Eva Davies as their young daughter). There were too many other charmingly evocative performances to mention here but, in particular, Chi Cao was magnificent as the shaman-style Southern Cape Zebra in the White Mischief cameo and I loved Laura Day’s unconfined gambolling as the Morris Dancing Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea. It is always a pleasure to re-open this passionate carnival of forgotten animals.

A programme that ended on a zoological and ecological note had begun with a danced physics lesson. In E = mc², Bintley has been influenced by David Bodanis’ biography of Einstein’s theory of the relativity of energy and mass in a work that occupies four distinct sections (it could easily be four separate pieces loosely tied together) representing each element of the world’s most famous equation. In truth, it is probably the piece that will have won Bintley his bet with the audience in terms of the complexities of the stage and lighting designs not quite coming together as they should. But the large cast of dancers were not at all phased in their mastery of the complex, fast-paced choreography.

Bintley’s eclectic scope as a choreographer is well illustrated through the four movements of this symphonic dance, beginning in the piece entitled Energy with an organic range of synchronised sequences that seemed to echo the ideals of Merce Cunningham and ending with a rambunctious torrent of dance in Celeritas² – performed by an 18-strong corps in front of a blazing grid of several hundred circular lights, facing the audience. The lead duo of Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman were fabulous dynamos. The small linking section – a solo for a kimono-clad woman (Samara Downs) – known as the Manhattan Project, occupying the third section of Matthew Hindson’s score, is a moment of important reflection – perhaps even representing Einstein’s conscience – where the physics of matter turning into massive energy is taken to its ultimate destructive conclusion in this reference to the atomic bomb. It is a few moments of theatrical excellence.

The middle piece is more representative of Bintley’s deep respect for classical ballet, and especially how a British tradition and style developed in the mid-twentieth century under the leadership of Ninette De Valois and Fredrick Ashton. Tombeaux is an elegiac tribute to what Bintley regarded as a dying art (a topical issue given last weekend’s revelation in The Sunday Telegraph that the Royal Ballet’s former star principal, Alina Cojocaru, was once pulled out of a new production of The Sleeping Beauty because she was unable or unwilling to dance it in the Royal’s “style”). One might even argue that it is Bintley’s Still Life for the endangered choreography of Ashton, not the least because he includes many, diverse variations on the “Fred Step” (a small sequence of ballet movements that Ashton included as a leit motif in all his choreographies).

Tombeaux is a fast-moving catalogue of classical steps and jumps, peppered with multiple double tours, fast-spun pirouettes and Cecchetti port de bras (more rounded circles made with the arms), much of which was made to look ridiculously easy by the hard-working lead pair of Joseph Caley and Momoko Hirata. A movement, performed three times, where Caley holds his partner low, facing out and then lifts her over his head, swiftly switching the angle of his wrists to let her drop inverted and head-first, yet holding her securely behind his back, facing away, was so momentous that it brought gasps and an audible “OMG” from the audience around me. Caley must have strong wrists and a grip like a titanium vice.

Despite the choreographer’s charming front-of-house apology for the front-end delays, this was a programme well worth the wait, showcasing the exceptional range of Bintley’s work over a 20 year period and demonstrating his unerring ability to take the most unusual concepts and turn them into meaningful dance with significant emotional impact.

Birmingham Royal Ballet continue at Sadler’s Wells in The Sleeping Beauty until 19 October

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.

Photo: ‘Still Life at the Penguin Café by Bill Cooper

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