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Birmingham Royal Ballet

‘Solitaire’, ‘Checkmate’, ‘The Lady and the Fool’

by David Mead

October 6, 2005 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, England

To open BRB’s autumn season, David Bintley assembled a programme celebrating ‘English’ ballet, featuring three works by choreographers instrumental in its development.

At first sight, Kenneth MacMillan’s "Solitaire", sub-titled "A Kind of Game for One", appears a very un-MacMillan like ballet. One of his earlier works, it’s quite lyrical and seems very happy and whimsical but at a deeper level it’s about a lonely girl and is full of melancholy. Like so many of his other works, the central character is an outsider, in this case not only reflecting MacMillan’s own life but also the experiences of Margaret Hill, on whom the ballet was made.

As the curtain rises we see a girl, who MacMillan simply called’‘The Girl’, seemingly deep in thought. Whether she is thinking of past pleasures, friends she has never had, or simply daydreaming Alice in Wonderland-like is not clear. As the ballet progresses in a series of short dances she meets various other characters who accept her to a lesser or greater degree. Many of these are based on childhood games and danced mostly to Malcolm Arnold’s "English Dances". Like Alice, The Girl is always there. Sometimes the others let her join in, sometimes not. Although she’s never rejected as such, everyone else always disappears as quickly as they arrive, often without saying goodbye. At the end of the ballet she is alone with her thoughts once more.

"Solitaire" has everything going for it. It’s beautifully crafted, pleasant to watch and perfectly fitting for the mood of Arnold’s music. The company looked in top form; Viktoria Walton was excellent as The Girl, showing just the right level of innocence and warmth.

"Checkmate" is Dame Ninette de Valois’ story of a power battle played out on a chessboard. With its expressionist designs, strong music and choreography, it remains a powerful piece of theatre. It can be seen as a warning of what can happen if someone in such a struggle is weak and indecisive, very appropriate for 1937, when the piece was choreographed. Here, it is the Red Knight who hesitates before being cut down by the Black Queen, danced aggressively and with real villainy by Nao Sakuma. This leaves the Red King at her mercy. Jonathan Payn showed us exactly how weak, pathetic and contemptible a figure the King is, before the Black Queen finally decides to kill him and the game ends.

The evening concluded with John Cranko’s "The Lady and the Fool", danced to an assemblage of gushing music from Verdi operas. The story is essentially about two down at heel clowns, Moondog and Bootface, who are invited to a ball by a beautiful woman, La Capricciosa. She is courted by three admirers including a prince and an ambassador, but rejects them for Moondog who she first seems to have deep feelings for in one of those Romeo and Juliet ‘across the room’ moments. The moral is simple: love is more important than riches and power.

Jonathan Payn (Prince of Arroganza), Valentin Olovyannikov (Ambassador of Arroganza) and Chi Cao (Capitano Adoncino) all gave the necessary caricature-like performances, full of affected gestures, but if anything, they needed to be even more ‘over the top’ than they were. Nao Sakuma was the gorgeous La Capricciosa, a role about as far from the Black Queen as you can get, while Robert Parker and Christopher Larsen gave us the perfect likeable and innocent clowns, especially in a comic dance with a rose.

Kate Ford succeeded in bringing the characters to life with her new costumes. The women’s ballgowns were especially a riot of colour, although if anything, the set was too ‘over the top’ with its floor-to-ceiling pink silk drapes. It did tend to overpower the dance. "Lady" could be a very sentimental ballet but Cranko’s trick was to not only to make caricatures of the characters but also to make us like them all. What would otherwise be only simple romantic nonsense thus becomes very humorous.

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