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Birmingham Royal Ballet

‘Apollo’, ‘The Seasons’, ‘Nine Sinatra Songs’

by David Mead

June 24, 2006 -- The Lighthouse, Poole, U.K.

It’s that time of year when Birmingham Royal Ballet divides into two, one half of the company heading towards the northeast, the other to the southwest, both putting on shows in smaller venues and in towns and cities that do not normally see top class ballet, which is how on a Saturday towards the end of June, an excellent and varied triple bill raised its head on the south coast at The Lighthouse, not a beacon for shipping, but for Poole’s excellent theatre and the arts.

The programme opened with Balanchine’s classic and timeless “Apollo”. BRB does  dance this rather well and this performance was no exception. The three muses, Elisha Willis (Terpsichore), Angela Paul (Polyhymnia) and Laura Purkiss (Calliope) were excellent, especially when making shapes and patterns, each leg, for example, always raised to precisely the correct height. The star of the show though, was Robert Parker who seems to have become the company’s ‘Apollo-in-chief’. Parker exhibited all the necessary god-like qualities and if anything, seemed to have gained  a little sharpness compared to performances earlier in the year in Birmingham.

“Apollo” was followed by ‘Summer’ and ‘Autumn’, from Oliver Hindle’s “The Four Seasons”. ‘Summer’ was originally created as part of BRB’s 1998 choreographic project, the rest of the ballet following in 2005. It takes swimming and diving as its theme, the blue of the backdrop suggesting blue skies, blue water and the perfect summer’s day, which was rather appropriate really, as outside it was just that. We could almost have been on one of the town’s gloriously sandy beaches. ‘Summer’ also gave a first sighting of Linnar Looris, BRB’s recent recruit from the Estonian National Ballet. Looris, quite tall with flowing blond hair, has a reputation for being an excellent partner, something more than justified on this showing, which featured some very sure lifting.

Both seasons were well danced, though ‘Autumn’, which takes horse racing and gymnastics as its combined theme, suffered a little because of the relatively small stage. It is an odd combination, but choreographically it does work, though the finale is a little repetitive. The link between the sports is provided by three pommel horses. The boys definitely seemed to be struggling for space and time, the central and furthest back pommel horse seemed especially close to the backdrop.

Given the present popularity of television shows such as ‘Strictly Come Dancing’,  perhaps it is no surprise that Ballroom should put in an appearance on the ballet stage. And if it’s going to do it, what better way than in Twyla Tharp’s 1982 classic “Nine Sinatra Songs”, though it’s really only eight, as there’s a double helping of “My Way”.

This is Tharp in elegant mode. “Ole Blue Eyes” croons away as seven couples dance for us, essentially ballroom with a bit of ballet thrown in for good measure. With glorious evening dresses by couturier Oscar de la Renta for the ladies, there’s plenty of grace and style, but with a little bit of humour and real life too. Tharp has given seven of the songs their own musical and dance character, using “My Way” as a device for bringing the couples together.

The highlights were undoubtedly “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and “That’s Life.” “One for My Baby” is not based on any particular dance form, but shows a close couple in a romantic late night rapport, here danced by Nao Sakuma and Tyrone Singleton. For the first time, you actually felt there really was something between the dancers, something that grew as the dance went on. They were clearly at ease in each other’s company. You felt they would be totally oblivious to anything else that might happen.

‘That’s Life” could hardly be more different. Maybe it’s a comment on what has gone before. Those were dreams, this is the real thing. Here the couple, Angela Paul and Robert Parker, are engrossed in a battle of wits, each determined to get their own way. There is a sense of the man trying to dominate, to force the woman to succumb to his will and power. But she is having none of it and gives as good as she gets.

Other Sinatra classics danced to include “Softly as I Leave You”, based on the theme of infatuation, and “Strangers in the Night”, a rather bastardised tango. In “Somethin’ Stupid”, Tharp tries to give us some comic relief, the man being particularly goofy and playful. That sort of humour doesn’t really work for me, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying it. “All the Way” is full of glamour and “Forget Domani” is fast paced and as showy as you could wish, the lady’s deep pinky-red costume being especially so.

If there is a criticism. it would be that some of the lifting looked a little strained, even awkward. It will be interesting to see it again next year when the company has had a little more time with it, and a little more space in which to dance. It is also a little odd to hear “My Way” twice, albeit two different recordings. Tharp uses it halfway through to bring back the first three couples, then again at the end when she brings back all seven. It’s almost like there are two finales. The first is rather unnecessary and somewhat spoils the flow of the work. Tacky? Maybe. Even frothy and lacking in substance. But glitter, spectacle and easy on the eyes and ears? Definitely. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who left the theatre humming those tunes.

This programme continues to Exeter and Truro. “Nine Sinatra Songs” also features in BRB’s 2006-7 repertory with performances in Birmingham and on tour.

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