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Birmingham Royal Ballet - 'Apollo', 'Pulcinella', 'The Firebird'

by David Mead

May 6, 2006 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, England

Igorfest is the City of Birmingham’s celebration of Stravinsky, during which all his music will be played at a series of concert and ballet performances. BRB’s contribution to the second year of events was a mixed programme featuring three of his earlier works from his time with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: “Apollo” (1928), “Pulcinella” (1919) and “The Firebird” (1910).

Why some ballets maintain their freshness and appeal decade after decade, while others seem to age so quickly will always be something of a mystery. George Balanchine’s “Apollo” certainly falls into the former category. It’s not a criticism that can usually be made of BRB’s dancing of Balanchine but, while very well-danced technically, the ballet sometimes seemed to lack that extra spark that it calls for. Robert Parker certainly looks the part as the sun god but was, I feel, a little too soft in his movements, maybe a bit too laid back. Of the three muses, Elisha Willis’ Terpsichore seemed a little bland, especially in the face, and it was left to Nao Sakuma (Polyhymnia) and Ambra Vallo (Calliope) to show us how it should be done.

My only reservation about the ballet is the inclusion of the prologue, something seemingly becoming much more common. I know it makes for a more complete narrative but it somehow doesn’t seem fit with the rest of the work, certainly in terms of movement style. Mr B. knew what he was doing when he cut it in search for a more abstract telling and I wish more companies would follow his lead.

Centre-programme was Kim Brandstrup’s new telling and very watchable production of “Pulcinella”. Here we saw Parker at his best as the put upon Pulcinella, who just wants a peaceful nap but who just gets nothing but one disturbance after the next. Brandstrup manages to bring a sort of sit-com approach to the story, managing to bring the humour out of the situation rather than forcing it.

Brandstrup’s shows a master storyteller’s touch in his characterisations and the way he shows the relationship between Parker and Ambra Vallo’s superb Pimpinella. Highlight of the piece is undoubtedly a duet between the two, both acrobatic with lots of inventive lifting, and tender and lyrical. Pulcinella’s movement features lots of jumps and turns, often done in a sort of loose, bouncing around kind of way. Think of a puppet that has had most of its strings cut and you have some idea of what it looks like; simple but effective. Brandstrup also uses Stravinsky’s orchestration of the score very well, even managing to match some of Pulcinella’s turning in his sleep with the music.

Steve Scott’s set gives a hint of perspective, as if looking down a street. While effective, perhaps it could do with a little more definition and colour. One or two mutterings could be heard afterwards about it being a little dimly lit, but it seemed fine to me, and after all, this is supposed to be happening at night! For the costumes, Brandstrup and designer Kandis Cook have dispensed with the oft-used colourful designs of previous productions and successfully gone back to some Jacques Callot etchings of commedia del’arte characters from the 17th century, Pulcinella, for example in traditional mask and tattered white suit.

The evening concluded with Fokine’s colourful telling of the fairytale, “The Firebird”. Elisha Willis seemed much happier here and made for a sparky Firebird, while the fast upcoming Kosuke Yamomoto excelled as Ivan Tsarevich. “Firebird” is more spectacle than anything else but it is impressive, and it’s amazing how many people you can get on the Hippodrome stage when you try!

This programme tours to Sunderland, London (Sadler’s Wells) and Plymouth in October and November 2006.

BRB’s next contribution to Igorfest, to be performed in February 2007, is the stunning all-Balanchine programme of “Agon”, “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and “Symphony in Three Movements”.

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