BRBís Autumn tour to Plymouth, Bradford and Sunderland finished last week. The ballets taken were almost the same as those performed at Sadlerís Wells in September: Swan Lake and a triple bill of The Seasons, Penguin Cafť and with Prodigal Son replacing Dante Sonata since Dante Sonata had already been seen outside London last year. Itís nice to be able to report that the theatres were full or almost full. That must have helped the Companyís finances, which have been severely strained by the unavailability for almost two years of the Birmingham Hippodrome, the only theatre where they can ever make any money. Audiences were pretty enthusiastic and I think the standard of the dancing was very much improved compared with the London and Birmingham seasons.
David Bintleyís new work The Seasons is a purely classical piece danced to the cheerful and tuneful music Verdi composed as part of The Sicilian Vespers. It formed the obligatory ballet interlude demanded by the Paris Opera in every grand opera at the time but the music works very well outside the context of the opera. The new ballet is a good opener for a triple bill and I liked it a lot. Apart from the Summer section, which contains some rather languid episodes, and the colours of the costumes, I donít think it has a lot to do with the seasons as such but the nature of the music means the ballet falls into four distinct parts. There is, in fact, very little interaction between these, except for the short finale and an even shorter section at the beginning for the four leading male dancers. This beginning is based very much on classroom steps and makes clear that the ballet is intended to be a very pure example of the classical dance.
In essence, what we see is a trio, for Winter, followed by three varied pas de deux, with Summer, to some extent, and Autumn, to a larger extent, making good use of the supporting ensemble of 12 girls and four boys. When I saw it first at Sadlerís Wells, I felt that Winter and Spring were excellent but that Summer and Autumn were much less good. Unfortunately, this meant the ballet started on a high and then tailed off. While I still think there is a lot of truth in that, I have seen a few performances when the last two seasons seemed almost as good as the first two. It depended very much on who was dancing.
We have seen many different casts in this ballet and because of the more or less independent nature of its four sections, one can play the game of unstitching the official casting and putting it back together as the fastest cast, the slowest cast, the youngest cast and so on. I have to say that I never did see in one single performance what would be for me the ideal cast.
Turning to individual dancers, Iíll concentrate mainly on those who danced a role several times. Winter was created on Carol-Anne Millar, Dorcas Walters and Kosuke Yamamoto so it is a trio involving very fast, precise footwork with a solo for Yamamoto to show off how well he can do vituoso steps. It is so tailored to the best characteristics of those three dancers that it is hard to imagine anybody dancing it better but the second cast of Angela Paul, Rachel Peppin and Krzysztof Nowogrodzki are almost as good. I can almost repeat what I have just written when describing Spring. It is one of Bintleyís finest pas de deux, which fits Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao perfectly. They always dance well together and they look absolutely wonderful in this. Before they got injured, Ambra Vallo and Sergiu Pobereznic (see later) were also very good.
It isnít possible to go on in the same way for Summer and Autumn because I am not sure who created the various roles and, because of injuries and illness, the cast in the first performance isnít a good indicator. For the most part on tour, we saw Iain Mackay partnering, in his usual unfussy, straightforward way, a variety of ladies in the Summer section. The lady who stood out for me was Monica Zamora. She made the choreography, which can look contrived and awkward, seem natural and seamless. She looked to be in her very best form. A few weeks ago in Birmingham, The Friends of BRB were able to watch David Bintley coaching Sacha Wakelin and Pierpaolo Ghirotto in the Summer pas de deux and it was interesting to see them have a go for real. They had taken Bintleyís corrections to heart and looked pretty good.
Autumn turned out to be the touchstone of the ballet for me. When danced crisply and with brio, it matched the first two seasons and formed a fitting conclusion. When done in a ponderous fashion with slurred endings to the steps, it could drag and seemed to drag the rest of the ballet down with it. Fortunately, by the time of the tour, Robert Parker had recovered from his injury and when he, with either Letitia Muller or Molly Smolen, were the dancers in Autumn, we saw it as I guess it was always intended to be.
My memory of Prodigal Son from a few years ago was that, like most of Balanchineís story ballets, it was very, very boring though not, of course, quite as awful as Orpheus. This time, I wasnít so bored, perhaps because of some very powerful performances by the leading dancers in each of the three casts (Monica Zamora/Robert Parker; Molly Smolen/Krzysztof Nowogrodski; Silvia Jimenez/Toby Norman-Wright). A lot of the ballet seemed very dated and, frankly, rather silly and I canít believe that all the crawling about at the end can have done the knees of the male leads a lot of good.
Some people say they get tired of Penguin Cafť after seeing it a few times. Iíve never found that, although I must have seen it more than most, but perhaps one or two episodes could be shorter. On the tour there were many different changes of cast and most of the dancers gave excellent accounts of their roles. There wasnít a single performance I saw that I would rate less than very good. Audiences seem to have adored it everywhere. I have one quibble. Itís a pity that only one of the fleas (Carol-Anne Millar) has a decent squeak.
On the Wednesday night at Plymouth, Pobereznic was injured whilst dancing in The Seasons and was out for the rest of the tour. The next morning Andrew Murphy became unavailable. Even before that, Tiit Helimets had dropped out of the tour with an injury. Therefore, BRB were left with only three Siegfrieds, Parker, Cao and Mackay, of whom not one had ever danced the role before. It is a tribute to their team spirit that they set to and managed to get the company through the rest of the tour without further mishaps. And we saw some excellent Swan Lakes on the way.
I ought to say more about Iain Mackay, who has only recently started playing leading roles. He is just 21 and joined BRB two years ago from the Royal Ballet School. At the School performances at Holland Park, he was Albrecht in Giselle Act 2 and it was quite evident then that he was very talented. After going along nicely in the corps for a year, he was given the role of Romeo when Shakespeare Suite was filmed for television. It suited him well because he is as tall as, with much the same build as, Andrew Murphy who had created the role but was ill and couldnít do the filming. For about a year his repertoire has been more that of a soloist than a member of the corps, which technically he is still. His biggest role last year was the second cast Mordred in Arthur 2. Itís a surprising role to give to an inexperienced dancer because it demands an acting ability and a very strong stage presence. But he was excellent and not just a carbon copy of Robert Parkerís Mordred. He had his own interpretation. I thought him just as good as Siegfried. He acted well, danced well and partnered well. You would have thought he had done dozens of performances as Siegfried.
Although in producing BRBís version of Swan Lake, Peter Wright gave Siegfried rather more dancing to do than happens in most productions, it remains the case that the ballet depends on Odette-Odile. I thought Ambra Vallo was excellent, very moving as Odette, especially in Act 4, and very wicked as Odile. Letitia Muller was heavily criticised for her London performances. Even her fans, and I am one of them, had to agree that she wasnít at her best. But what a difference in her one performance on tour! No longer looking insecure and uncertain, she danced the contrasting roles like a principal dancer in very good form. The mystery is why she wasnít like that earlier in the season.
Molly Smolen has been a real stalwart in the company over the past two years and I canít praise her enough. She has danced roles both big and small with commitment and intelligence; I hate to think how the company would have managed without her. I would describe her as a very strong dancer with a fine technique and a very definite and determined stage personality. It must be difficult to moderate these enough to play a fragile and helpless heroine and I felt that, as Odette she was dancing against the grain of her talent. But to be fair, I must add that she danced the role beautifully from a technical point of view and audiences loved her. As Odile she was superb. There was no doubt that she could run rings around dozens of Siegfrieds.
One of the great pleasures in watching BRB over the last couple of years has been to see Nao Sakuma develop from doing a few solo roles to becoming a true ballerina. She has a wonderful technique, of course, but what is so special about her is the way she uses that technique to illuminate a role. It is interesting to see how she uses her eyes and smiles, a variety of smiles, to convey information to the audience. For example, the bold, come-hither smile to Siegfried, which contrasted with the sly Iím-really-enjoying-deceiving-this-guy smile when he wasnít looking, told you all you needed to know about Odile.
I thought she was terrific both as Odette and Odile.
Even in London, I felt the corps was very good in spite of the nasty things the London press said about it. And to ask for thinner dancers is madness. I for one do not want to see a lot of skeletons jangling about on stage. We saw some excellent big swans and excellent little swans and some good courtesans in Act1.
I could never say that Swan Lake is one of my top favourite ballets but I did enjoy most of the performances I saw on this tour. More importantly, audiences seem to have enjoyed them as well.