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Birmingham Royal Ballet


by David Mead

February 7, 2007 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK

David Bintley has always believed in “Cyrano”. Now, 16 years after his first attempt to bring Edmond Rostand’s classic tale of unfulfilled love to the ballet stage, that belief has been well and truly vindicated in a beautifully crafted and eminently watchable production that I predict will be around for a long time.

The audience arrives to see the curtain already raised to reveal a theatre being readied and an audience arriving for a play. While the device mirrors nicely what is happening in the real auditorium, this is undoubtedly the weakest part of the evening. As the stage starts to teem with people it simply gets too crowded to really see what is happening. Cyrano expresses his feelings for Roxane, but never particularly clearly.

However, once the story moves to Ragueneau’s bakery in the next scene, it really gets going. Now Bintley is in his element and presents us with a classic dance-drama. He has distilled the story down and gets to the heart of the matter: the love triangle between Cyrano, Christian and Roxanne. In doing so he gives us lots of dance, from lyrical and tender pas de deux to big rambunctious set pieces for the cadets.

The story unfolds so naturally that the evening simply flies by. We see Cyrano, a man of contradictions. A man in love and so full of letters, but he is incapable of simply telling Roxane that he loves her.A man who has almost everything except the looks and love he really wants. Indeed it is only when he dances with Roxane that he seems to find a release, and the passion of his letters is translated to action. And of course we have Christian, the illiterate soldier who has the looks but not the words. And so we sweep through nineteenth century France, through Parisian streets, romantic encounters in gardens and battlefields to the final scene in a convent orchard fifteen years after we started.

The final scene deserves special mention. Cyrano limps onto the stage and sits. A tragic figure, he is now a wounded and broken man. Just like Cyrano the leaves on the trees are in the autumn of their life. The once-green trees have now turned to red and gold and just like Cyrano they are falling and dying. Parker’s wonderful acting conveys all too clearly that he doesn’t want Roxane to see him like this, yet he cannot resist his need to see her one last time. They dance together, his love finally revealed, before, in an incredibly powerful scene that really tugs at the emotions, he dies in the arms of the woman he always loved, but who always seemed just of out reach.

Robert Parker has always been a superb dancer but he is now also an accomplished actor who can make even the smallest gesture or look mean so much. His portrayal of Cyrano was quite simply wonderful, one minute full of bravado, the next racked with pain at the way he looks. Apparently full of confidence yet at the same time so insecure. This will be the last role he creates on the stage before leaving BRB in the summer to train as a commercial airline pilot in the US. He is going to be greatly missed.

The fresh-faced Elisha Willis made for a delightful Roxane, apparently oblivious, until the end at least, that Cyrano was her real love. Her dancing was always light and full of innocence, even when dancing with the cadets during her visit to the battlefield. Especially lyrical were some of the duets with Iain Mackay’s fresh-faced Christian. The ballet also saw the welcome return to the Hippodrome stage of long time favourite Joseph Cipolla as De Guiche. Bintley has reduced the role to little more than a walk-on but even under all that costume and heavy make-up there was no mistaking his brooding figure and commanding presence.

Bintley makes numerous references to other ballets and of course, it wouldn’t be a Bintley story ballet without those trademark touches of humour. Sometimes he manages to combine these as in a hilarious pastiche of the Rose Adagio that takes place in Ragueneau’s bakery, complete with baguettes instead of roses. What is really clever is that the joke works even if you don’t get the link with “Sleeping Beauty”. There are many other clear references including “Apollo”, “Hobson’s Choice” and “Romeo and Juliet”.

From his first production of the story, Bintley has retained the moment where Cyrano dances with a globe (light) on his head. This is a reference to the real Cyrano de Bergerac’s science fiction novel “Voyage to the Moon” but again where he succeeds is that you don’t need to know that. If you get it it’s a bonus. It works as a visual gag either way.

And Bintley doesn’t stop at ballet or historical references. British readers will no doubt remember the famous Morecambe and Wise version of “Cyrano” from 1977 that featured Penelope Keith as Roxane. When Christian is mocking Cyrano’s “big conk” as Eric [Morecambe] put it, he produces an oversize handkerchief and puts a huge glass on his nose, just like in Ernie [Wise]’s play. Another reference comes when Christian is wooing Roxane on a garden bench with Cyrano coaching him from behind.

All this is aided by Carl Davis’ rolling ocean of a score that is sometimes sweeping and majestic, sometimes subtle. It could be accused of being popularist (since when was that a crime anyway) but it is very easy on the ear and combines with Bintley’s choreography to keep the tale moving along nicely. Hayden Griffin’s costumes, recycled from Bintley’s first “Cyrano”, and the sets could be accused of being overly fussy and too big, but they do place the ballet firmly in the period. And one thing that Bintley has always been certain of is that “Cyrano” is a tale of its time and place and can only be set firmly in that time and place.

The end result is a triumph. Rostand’s play is complex and although the power of words in Cyrano’s letters is perhaps never fully conveyed, Bintley does get to the heart of the matter – and to our hearts too, because it is impossible to leave the theatre without feeling sorry for Cyrano, Roxane and Christian. This was a love triangle that was destined never to have a happy ending – for any of them. Of course it helps if you buy a programme or read the synopsis, helpfully printed on the back of the free cast list, but you don’t need to. You can follow everything quite easily without – always the sign of a special piece of work.

“Cyrano” continues on tour to Salford, Plymouth, Sunderland and Oxford.

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