Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Autumn Celebration - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 24 - 27 October 20-12
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 29 October 2012

Birmingham Royal Ballet David Bintley's 'Faster' Dancers: Elisha Willis and Iain Mackay. Photo: Bill Cooper

The Grand Tour / Faster / The Dream
Reviewed: 25 October

There must have been a reason for dusting off a ballet made over 40 years ago about a life – lived 40 years before that – hobnobbing with the stars on the promenade deck of an ocean liner. I suppose it catches the Downton Abbey fashion of vicariously peeping at a privileged world, now long gone, but given the various emphases on aged lechery, butch lesbianism (and of course the stowaways would have to be Italian), it seemed often to belong more in the genre of Benny Hill than with the Wodehousian wit of Jeeves and Wooster.

Joe Layton – who died in 1994 – was a Tony-award winning Broadway choreographer who turned his hand to ballet for The Grand Tour after pitching the idea of a work based on Noël Coward’s songs to Kenneth MacMillan when the latter was directing The Royal Ballet, in 1970. This was two years after the premiere of Frederick Ashton’s ballet Enigma Variations and there is a very notable structural connection in relation to the mutual theme of ‘friends pictured within’. In place of Edward Elgar and his mates, here is Coward surrounded on the play deck by his gay crowd of Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Theda Bara, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein (unbelievably played by a man) and Alice B. Toklas. The musical theatre style of the 1970s is the prevalent theme in a work that demolishes at a stroke the cool, sophisticated image of life on an ocean liner in the 1930s that I have nurtured since seeing the Astaire/Rogers movie Shall We Dance , as a child. This attempt to capture the same turns out to be cruder than Carry on Cruising. It could have been so much better, even in 1971. In 2012, there is just no excuse for it. Perhaps the most interesting fact about this woeful ballet is that it was premiered by The Royal Ballet at the Theatre Royal in Norwich. That really is a sign of a bygone age.

Thankfully, the programme accelerated into the stratosphere after this farcical start, with the aptly entitled Faster made by David Bintley, in my humble opinion the best classical choreographer working in Britain today. His homage to the Olympics is quite possibly the best attempt to portray the essence of sporting endeavour in dance that I have seen – and I have some previous here. In 2005, when London won the right to host the Olympic Games, as the Performance Director in the sport of fencing, I was invited by Jude Kelly to bring three of my fencing team to join some other athletes in working with Wayne McGregor on creating dance from the movement of their sports. It was more a workshop than a serious attempt at making dance for public consumption but it showed me how very difficult is the process of turning sporting athleticism into organised choreography. Bintley has made it look easy. There is so much to love in this simple celebration of sport not least, for me, in the cut and thrust of the four gorgeous fencing girls but also in the comical antics of the walker, the ebb and flow of the marathon, the high jumping girl who is literally held high in a jump, and the synchronised swimmers in their sparkly tunics. I loved also the unexplained idiosyncrasies such as the virtuoso male dancer dressed as a Roman gladiator, as if Spartacus himself had wandered into the fencing contest (I think he’d win). Faster was a joy to watch. It really should have featured in the London Olympics Opening Ceremony.

And, speaking of joys. Well, I can’t praise the BRB interpretation of Ashton’s The Dream highly enough. It was beautifully danced by the entire company. My only quibble is with the regularity of noisy feet and the extraneous whirring of the dry ice machine, nether of which added to Mendelssohn’s divine score. The corps de ballet of fairies were excellent, as were all the soloists. And the lead duo of César Morales and Momoko Hirata seemed born to dance the roles of Oberon and Titania with their effortless, gossamer-light movement and the smoothest multiple pirouettes imaginable, always ending in the most graceful positions. Hirata’s ethereality was remarkable and one worried that the puffing dry ice machine might blow her away. This performance was an absolute credit to the dancers, the ballet staff and to the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, which did its best to compete with the extra noise and won.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s two mixed programmes of six works at Sadler’s Wells this month have showcased the company’s outstanding dancers to great effect in all kinds of choreography – from the classical shapes of Ashton, to the modern speed and attack of Bintley. This is a company in fine form.

Birmingham Royal Ballet website

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.

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