Mixed Bill, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 16 March 2002
BRB’s mixed programme at their home base, the Birmingham Hippodrome, manages to illustrate both its history and its heritage as well as looking forward to the future.
It included a chance – sadly rare this year in the UK - to see some of Frederick Ashton’s funniest and most absurd dances in Façade, set to Walton’s delightful music. This is Walton’s centenary year, and to mark this, there is another Walton work on the bill, Bintley’s own Tombeaux, made in 1993. More recent still is Lila York’s Sanctum, made by her for BRB in 1997.
This was my first visit to the refurbished Hippodrome after its expensive and lengthy rebuilding programme, and it made a very favorable impression – clean uncluttered lines, lots of foyer space, the interior elegantly re touched in silver but retaining comfy seats and good sightlines. The De Valois photo exhibition, which was recently in the ROH, is now on display here. This season at the Hippodrome is dedicated to the memory of Princess Margaret and there are many reminiscences of her and her involvement in the ballet world in the printed programme (I rather liked the detail of her advising the King in Sleeping Beauty on more regal behavior). It’s quite clear that the company is clear about its roots, both historic and geographical.
Nevertheless the company has had a difficult time in the last year or so with financial worries from being out of its home base for so long: and it is a time of change in the company. A number of principal dancers have left or are retiring this season, and at BRB’s last London appearance this, coupled with injuries, left them looking less strong than before.
Joe Cipolla and Catherine Batcheller are making final appearances as guest principals later this season. Sabrina Lenzi and David Justin also retire this season, and Leticia Muller has now become a guest principal. A recent joiner at principal level is Michael Revie, previously with the Zurich Ballet. (He trained at the RBS, and yes he is Gillian Revie’s brother – the resemblance is notable). But with BRB it is easy to see where the next generation of key dancers is coming from. Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao weren’t cast in the afternoon performance, but their recent appearance at Dame Beryl’s gala showed their confidence and style. Bintley has done an excellent job of developing other talent in house, as this afternoon programme showed.
For instance, the lead in Tombeaux was danced by Carole-Anne Millar (who also danced the Polka in Façade). In 1997 Bintley created a ballet, The Spider’s Feast, for the Royal Ballet School performance. This featured memorable appearances by Jerry Douglas as the Spider, and Kenta Kura in a lead role. Both joined the Royal. Jerry Douglas left after a couple of years: Kenta Kura is still there but not particularly visible. Carole Anne Millar was the female lead, the Mayfly. She joined BRB and has progressed rapidly, and will dance Juliet this season. She looked calm and poised and generally unworried by any technical challenges that came her way: more stage authority will come to her in time.
The programme note on Tombeaux indicates that in musical terms tombeau indicates a musical work written by on composer in tribute to another. The music here is Walton’s Variations on a Theme by Hindemith, written in 1963. Bintley made it in 1993 for the Royal, his last work there before leaving. I did see it then, but it made very much more impact this time round. It always appeared a sombre and reflective work, Bintley at his most purely classical, ostensibly completely abstract in form, but with an air of mystery.
What I see here now is Bintley reflecting on the abstract work of Frederick Ashton and making something which is both a reflection on Ashton’s Scenes de Ballet and yet still, though a tribute, quite definitely the work of a different artist, just Walton reflects on Hindemith. Both Tombeaux and Scenes de Ballet works have a similar structure – a lead couple supported by four male soloists and a female corps de ballet. The work for the four male soloists and their repeated double tours is where the evocation seemed particularly strong: there were also lots of low lifts for the ballerina – not quite walking on air Ashton style, but still definitely related. The handling of the corps also, and their groupings around the ballerina also carried evocations of Ashton
The lead male role was originally made on Bruce Sansom, and is taken here by Robert Parker, whose easy, unforced and very natural dancing looks right for the part. There are some very striking upside-down lifts which were handled with great ease. The final section moves from the subdued and elegiac air to a more triumphal close as the backcloth lifts to bathe the stage in stronger greens and blues.
The design for Tombeaux is quite as chic as for Scene, but in a different way. The inky indigo tutus by Jasper Conran with their white under layer are very striking, and are well lit for maximum effect.
Tombeaux does not yield all its depths up at a single viewing. This revival was sponsored by The Friends of Covent Garden: I wish they could coax the Royal into performing Scenes De Ballet, not seen at Covent Garden since 1990.
Lila York’s Sanctum also had more than one layer to it, though these were served up side by side. She used two pieces of music- Ravel for the opening and closing sections and for the central section. Christopher Rouse’s The Infernal Machine – lots of bangs and crashes. The beginning is a solo for the lead male (Revie) in white: this is followed by a madcap middle section of frenetic office workers-cum-robots in weird deconstructed suits and metallic dresses zipping around with furious energy and some menace, before a return to Ravel and dreamy pastel outfits for a gentle conclusion. It’s an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle and, as such, suits the company well. York states that Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was something of an inspiration for this piece, and you can see this in the harassed and frenetic section. Both the dreamy pastels and the gray metallic sections would have been too pronounced on their own: but there’s little relationship between the two and the overall effect is oddly unsatisfying. The cast set about it with tremendous verve, however, and the audience reacted very positively.
Ashton’s Façade was the closing item, guaranteed to send everyone away in a good mood. This revival was supervised by Alexander Grant, and the company seemed to have caught the right note. Ashton can be dismissed as light and frivolous as if this somehow implied slight or easy to do. A soufflé is light but it’s not necessary easy to get right. Fierce attention to detail and timing are everything.
Façade is a series of numbers where Ashton uses popular dance forms and mixes them with purely classical steps. It’s unfair to pick out different performers, but I thought Larsen and Whitley had the correct absolute deadpan air in Popular Song – to be funny you need to keep a completely straight face- and the trio in the Scottish Rhapsody had the sharp footwork and articulation of the upper body right. The pert milkmaid (Lei Zhao) and her mountaineers had everyone in fits of giggles. Antonucci seemed to relish his role in the Tango, with just the right amount of sleaze. All great fun, and even sitting here writing about it makes me smile.