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Birmingham Royal Ballet - 'Such Sweet Thunder' Program

'The Nutcracker Sweeties', 'The Orpheus Suite', 'The Shakespeare Suite'

The Duke in the underworld

by Rosie Waters

October 28, 2004 -- Sadler's Wells, London

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's second programme at Sadler's Wells this week was 'Such Sweet Thunder', company director David Bintley's tribute to Duke Ellington. Bintley uses Ellington's music for the first and last ballets of the evening, "The Nutcracker Sweeties" and "The Shakespeare Suite", while "The Orpheus Suite", Bintley's newest ballet, draws parallels between Ellington's life and the Orpheus myth.

In "The Orpheus Suite", Bintley takes the well known Orpheus story, and sets it in the 1930s, with the Orpheus character representing Ellington. The idea is that Ellington's music was just as powerful as Orpheus's in that it had the ability to win over white audiences in 1930s America. This conceit isn't developed at all as far as I can tell, but it provides the Jazz Age setting for the ballet. Bintley commissioned a new score from jazz composer Colin Towns for the ballet.

I found the work hugely enjoyable, if uneven, with some scenes being amazingly effective set pieces, and others rather nondescript and weak. The pas de deux for Orpheus and Eurydice were rather insipid while the ensemble work for the men was incredibly spectacular. That seemed to be the way with the score too, with exciting passages intermingled with some blandness. It may have been meant in a tongue in cheek way, but there were some terribly sentimental passages which sounded like they came straight off a soundtrack for a bad 1980s film.

The opening scene is a stunner, though, with rousing music introducing Apollo and the Argonauts, who all get a chance to show off their impressive techniques. I also loved the scenes in Hades, which were lit in red, giving a horribly seedy feeling to the proceedings. I thought as a whole, the ballet had the feel of a musical, and I wasn't sure if that was a good or a bad thing, but it certainly provided some brilliant spectacle and entertainment.

Performances were also brilliant. Robert Parker blazed through the role of Orpheus, while Elisha Willis was a touching Eurydice. Iain Mackay was a slimy Aristaeus and the Furies played their sexy zombie roles effectively.

The programme opened with the endlessly perky "The Nutcracker Sweeties", Bintley's rollicking   interpretation of Ellington's variations on pieces from "The Nutcracker". A fun opener but the ballet lasts longer than Bintley's invention and it dragged a bit at the end. It was fantastic though to see Monica Zamora oozing sex appeal as Sugar Rum Cherry and Nao Sakuma was a voluptuous Arabesque Cookie.

"The Shakespeare Suite", a set of short scenes each depicting characters from Shakespeare, closed the evening. Last time I saw this I really enjoyed it, but I think on this occasion it suffered from being programmed with ballets too similar in choreography and music - by the end of the night, big band music had lost its appeal somewhat and Bintley's choreography seemed a bit repetitive. "Shakespeare Suite" just seemed like one ballet too far and whatever the logic of programming these ballets together, I think the evening would have benefited from something with a different feel. However, Parker's Hamlet was well worth seeing, and I also enjoyed Tyrone Singleton and Victoria Marr as Othello and Desdemona.

Edited by Jeff.

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