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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Solitaire', 'Checkmate', 'The Lady and the Fool'

by Kate Snedeker

November 8, 2005 -- Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Edinburgh is home to a diverse range of contemporary dance performances, but aside from the Scottish Ballet’s semiannual appearances and Northern Ballet Theatre’s yearly ballet-theatre production, there is little classical ballet outside of the International Festival. Thus, the appearance of the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre was a welcome treat for Scottish balletomanes. The company presented two programs, a trio of ballets by Sadler’s Wells choreographers of years past – Kenneth MacMillan, Ninette de Valois and John Cranko – and David Bintley’s full-length ballet, “Hobson’s Choice.”

“Solitaire (A kind of game for one…),” is one of Kenneth Macmillan’s earlier ballets, and is a whirlwind tour through the daydreams of a lonely young girl. In the dreary confines of an anonymous city park, she conjures up a circus of sorts – ladies in bright red dresses, acrobats in harlequin-diamond unitards and, perhaps, the men of her dreams.  Malcolm Arnold’s score delivers plenty of brassy marches, but there’s a melancholic undertone, a constant reminder that it’s all a dream and the girl must eventually return to her lonely reality. Viktoria Walton was a sweet-faced girl, bringing a tinge of winsomeness to her role. She was partnered by Tyrone Singleton, Kosuke Yamamoto and the standout, Chi Cao, who stood out for the clarity and power in his solo.  Lei Zhao was also of note. Though energetic and enthusiastic, the corps appeared a bit under-rehearsed, the men notably out of synchronization in several sections.  Kim Beresford’s colorful costumes were attractive, but the harsh chain link fence in the backdrop seemed at odds with the girl’s frilly pink tutu.

It was none other than a young Kenneth MacMillan who danced as one of the black nights in Ninette de Valois’ “Checkmate” when it (last?) was performed at the Festival Theatre back in 1951. And on this evening, more than fifty years later, there was also a native Scot under one of the black night’s horse-head masks, the Glasgow-born Rory MacKay. 

In this darkly melodramatic ballet, de Valois brings to life a chess game between Love and Death. The action takes place on E. McKnight Kauffer’s stage-floor chessboard, which stretches from wing to wing.  Armies of red and black pawns prances onto the stage, the sheer size of the chessboard and their conical headgear combining to give the women’s pointe-shoe clad feet a delicate but razor sharp look. Following them are two muscular, strutting red knights, Robert Parker and Dominic Antonucci.

Battle comes when the black queen, the sizzling Elisha Willis, strides out on stage, her long, lean legs slicing though the air. Kauffer’s black and white costume, with half skirt and tall, razor edged crown, gives the queen a steely, confident look. With castles, bishops, pawns, knights and the red king assembled, the action begins, and eventually Antonucci’s red knight has the queen pinned. But this is a battle between love and death, and the knight, sucked in by the queen’s allure, cannot bring himself to make the fatal stab. His weakness revealed, the queen pounces on him and finishes the deed he could not.  Now the king is without protection, and easy prey for the queen. His ritual death at her hands is projected onto the abstract backdrop by unseen lights, creating a monstrous, eerie shadow version of his final moments.

Propelled by Arthur Bliss’ music, the company was in good form, the slight spacing and timing problems in the women’s corps minimalised by the force and precision of their dancing. Robert Parker (?), as the first red knight, looked a little underpowered in his solo but came into his own during the showdown with the queen. The emotion of the moment is not easily portrayed when the dancers’ head is completely entombed in the horse-head mask, but Parker skillfully used the tension and release in his arms and body to show the knight’s change of heart towards the queen. Elisha Willis was a venomous queen – the chess version of George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” siren.

If the first two ballets seemed a bit under-rehearsed, and thus revealed some of the weaknesses in the dancers, John Cranko’s “The Lady and the Fool” showed the company at its cohesive finest. Bound together by Giuseppe Verdi’s poignant score, the ballet tells the story of La Capricciosa, a beauty who finds love in the unlikeliest of men – a clown by the name of Moondog. The woman sees Moondog and his pal sleeping on her way to a party and invites them in. Hidden behind a mask, she is wooed by the host, an army captain and a prince, but it is Moondog who finally sees her sad face and wins her heart.  The guests try to run him off, but true love prevails in the end. 

Framed by the silk-draped walls and sweeping double staircase of Kate Ford’s ballroom set, the dancers gracefully glide and swoop through a series of dances, the women clad in a rainbow of gorgeous full-skirted gowns. There was not a foot out of place in the corps even during the trickiest of moves; the men were attentive and elegant partners.

But it was the lead cast that really brought the ballet together. Grundy as Moondog and Alexander Campbell as Bootface were superb – two clowns of the old school, mixing humour with a gentle pathos. In their tricky duos, the timing was spot on, their rapport heartwarming and utterly believable. This was dancing rehearsed to the point of gloriously sheer spontaneity, down to the intricate interactions between dancing dancers and bumbling clowns. 

Grundy was especially moving in his courtship – as it were – with Ambra Vallo’s wonderfully danced La Capricciosa. Unlike La Capricciosa’s high-class suitors -- the prince, soldier and host, who strut their stuff in solos full of high jumps and elegant choreography-- Moondog’s dancing is earthbound, with rounded edges, characterised by raised, gently bent arms with palms turned out. It’s a welcoming, uncomplicated gesture, as simple and as pure as his love for La Capricciosa.

Chi Cao was again impressive, this time as Capitano Adoncino, with Dominic Antonucci in fine form as the social host. The tall Tom Rogers was an elegant Prince of Arroganza, but his dancing would benefit from more attention to detail – such as feet pointed as nicely in the air as they are in tendú.

A happy ending on the stage and for the audience, there could have been no better end to the evening than the “The Lady and the Fool.” The company has seen a lot of roster changes in the last year, but this ballet was proof of the talent within, and leaves one with high hopes for future performances.

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