This was an evening that upset many of the usual assumptions about ballet in the UK. For one thing, it was a triple bill of predominantly recent work which sold much, much better than the well known, full length ballets by the company, and for another it was a programme where the only real narrative work came from Balanchine: the other two items from Bintley are more brief character sketches than connected story. It wasnít the average Covent Garden crowd, or the usual musical experience: the band, Echoes of Ellington, played on enthusiastically through the intervals, with the audience crowding down to the front of the stalls to listen, clap along, shout for more and generally have a good time.
It was a cheerful and good humoured experience, and immensely popular with the audience. It was all undeniably fun, but in general, my preference is for mixed bills to offer more of a contrast between the different elements. In 1997, before the house closed, BRB brought a Jazz Triple Bill, which included, as now, the Nutcracker Sweeties to Covent Garden, but on that occasion the other works on the bill had quite a different look and feel. Bintleyís the Shakespeare Suite is very close, both musically and in style to Nutcracker Sweeties and something a little more astringent would have offset Sweeties better. As a programme though it did show off the company rather well - the company as a whole, not individual stars is always the point with BRB.
The opening work was Balanchineís Slaughter on 10th Avenue - not Balanchine as many audiences would generally imagine it in the UK ! The view of Balanchine here (from the casual rather than the committed ballet-goer anyway), is that the work is abstract, cool, rather austere, no doubt to be respected, but not a bundle of laughs. Slaughter on 10th Avenue merrily demolishes all those ideas. Itís a dance extract from the musical On Your Toes, and the daffy plot concerns gangsters, striptease artists, dancers, and some comic policemen. All good silly fun, and a great excuse to see Monica Zamora wearing some strategically applied sequins and not much else. Cipolla was her increasingly frantic and frenetic partner. A fun starter.
The Shakespeare Suite is set (like Sweeties) to Ellingtonís music, a set of sketches inspired by Shakespearean characters. Itís not a narrative, more a series of sketches to different numbers. Itís fun music for dancing, but the whole tone of the music at times just feels too bright and relentlessly cheerful for the darkness of the subject matter. Bottom and Titania, Kate and Petruchio are cheerful, entertaining knockabout stuff - Kate dressed as a bride but wearing trainers. But Hamlet and Othello as subject matter donít really sit quite comfortably on the upbeat, jaunty tone of the music. There was a terrific, intense performance from Robert Parker as Hamlet nevertheless. Kevin OíHare as Richard III fools around with a red nose in wooing Lady Anne: if the aim is to use cheerful music as a deliberate contrast to the characterís evil, it doesnít have the effect - the encounter, which ought to be scary, is trivialised. Thereís a lovely short pas de deux for Andrew Murphy and Leticia Muller as Romeo and Juliet, though.
Needless to say, the designs are extremely elegant, limited to black and white. Jasper Conran has come up with another great dress for Zamora - black bias cut satin this time. Iím less convinced about the costumes for the men. It was an enjoyable piece, but somehow insubstantial: a lot of little sketches rather than a full picture.
The Nutcracker Sweeties is an ideal closer for a programme. Ellington and Strayhornís reworking of themes from the Nutcracker gets better every time you hear it, both in the subtlety of its references to the original, and its own joyous rhythms. Itís a romp through the most popular tunes from the Nutcracker, reworked in a jazz idiom, and with the numbers retitled and given an All American gloss to them - a question of playing spot your favourite film star reference. Zamora does a wonderful turn as Rita Hayworth playing Sugar Rum Cherry - a very, very long way from the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Looking at it immediately after the Shakespeare Suite, it seems a much stronger work: not trying to advance much in particular by way of narrative, but just revelling in the music, and with a stronger and more focused dance content. I really missed Chenca Williams in the Floreadores section: otherwise, there were many performances to enjoy - Muller as the Arabesque Cookie, Kevin OíHare as Captain Peanut, Robert Parker as the sailor. The company look like they loved every minute of it.
It certainly sent the audience home happy. I felt in some ways Iíd eaten three desserts rather than a proper meal, but it was undeniably a fun evening.