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Birmingham Royal Ballet

Simply Jazz ('Take Five', 'The Orpheus Suite', 'The Shakespeare Suite')

by David Mead

February 29th, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

In many ways the title "Simply Jazz" doesn't really do justice to David Bintley's latest programme of jazz ballets. Jazz it might be, but simple it certainly isn't. Bintley has long had a love of jazz music, inherited in part from his father, who had a huge jazz collection and played in a jazz band that sometimes used to rehearse in their lounge. He thought his previous jazz programme, which included "The Nutcracker Sweeties" alongside "Shakespeare" and "Orpheus" was too high powered. His solution was to create a new work to Dave Brubeck's catchy tunes. The result is an evening of three ballets clearly linked, yet equally clearly different, and on the whole entertaining.

First seen on the company's small-scale tour of the South-west in 2007, "Take Five" is elegant, yet at the same time light-hearted, cool and laid back. With music provided by a jazz quartet, it's certainly a contrast to the percussion and big band sounds of the other two works. "Take Five" opens with Brubeck's 1959 hit of the same name, in an unusual 5/4 time, and which with its 'can't get it out of you head' sax melody was the first jazz instrumental to sell a million copies. Bintley uses five dancers (what else?); four men who dance together around a square, and a woman who appears later to dance with each in turn.

Further short dances follow, each with its own mood, before everyone in the cast of ten comes together for the finale danced to "Double Take". They all showed great energy and enthusiasm throughout while equally managing to display the cut glass precision much of Bintley's choreography calls for. Joseph Caley was especially impressive in "Flying Solo", which calls for him to move over every part of the stage athletically. Pick of the bunch though were Jenna Roberts and Dominic Antonucci in "Two Step", a pas de deux where they softly flirt with each other, not really coming together until the very end.

The laid back nature of the piece is helped along by a simple backcloth and equally easy on the eye costumes. Just like the choreography, Jean-Marc Puissant's creations look deceptively simple with their very subtle colours; the men in casual trousers and T-shirts, and the women in late 1950s-style dresses.

"The Orpheus Suite" was inspired by the life and works of Duke Ellington, Bintley drawing parallels with his life and the seamier side of jazz. Danced to a specially commissioned score by Colin Towns, Bintley's ballet still follows the Greek myth as we follow Orpheus into the underworld in search of his beloved Eurydice, while giving it a very 1950s feel. Iain Mackay, about to leave the company for a new venture in Spain, made for a suitably lost Orpheus, while Elisha Willis was the innocent lost in Bintley's vice-laden version of the underworld. Best characterisation of all though came from Tyrone Singleton as a nasty-looking Aristaeus.

The programme was completed by "The Shakespeare Suite" danced to seven sections from Ellington's tribute to Shakespeare, "Such Sweet Thunder". Bintley brings to life many of the best-known Shakespeare characters, including Hamlet, Bottom and Titania, Othello and Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet, in a series of vignettes. For me, they don't all work, but of those that do, Ambra Vallo was a delightfully daffy Titania, and Tyrone Singleton a menacing Othello, while Jamie Bond and Natasha Oughtred made for nicely matched star crossed lovers.

The music for the programme was provided by the wonderful Colin Town's Mask Orchestra.

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