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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Petrushka', 'Le Baiser de la fée', 'Card Game'

by David Mead

July 3, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Over the past few years, June at Birmingham Royal Ballet has come to mean one thing -- Stravinsky.  For the final programme of ballets to this most influential of composer’s music, artistic director David Bintley gave three works spanning a century of dance: Michel Fokine’s “Petrushka”, now almost one hundred years old; John Cranko’s “Card Game” from the 1960s; and bringing us right up to date, a new production of “Le Baiser de la fée” from Michael Corder.

Over the years, “Le Baiser de la fée” has been something of a problem ballet.  Following Nijinska’s original, Ashton, MacMillan (twice), Hynd, Balanchine, and many others have attempted it.  Not only is there no definitive version, but none have even remained in the repertory.

The problem, I suspect, stems from Stravinsky’s scenario.  “Baiser” may be based on the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Ice Maiden”, but Stravinsky rather dipped in and out of it, giving us scenes from the narrative, rather than the full work.  The result is a ballet that, even though often presented as a straightforward narrative, has never quite told a story.  Corder has tried to make more sense of some things, for example, the bride doesn’t quite disappear from matters without explanation as she does in the scenario, but it’s still not quite the full works.  The problems start to multiply when you consider that none of the characters in the scenario are named or have a history, and there is a twenty year gap to account for between the prologue and scene one.  All this has left choreographers with a conundrum: try and give the story substance, or stick with the music -- or I guess, do what Balanchine did when he remade it as “Divertimento from Baiser de la fée”, and drop all pretence of a narrative completely.

Michael Corder went with the music, and not surprisingly, the result is a ballet that while apparently dramatic, never really tells a story.  The characters are not delineated and have no depth.  What Corder has produced though is forty-five minutes of hugely enjoyable and very well-crafted dance.  From the opening desolate, wintry landscape, to the wedding preparations, and back to the cold outdoors, it is extremely watchable.  It must also be truly stamina sapping, especially for the Young Man, danced here by Alexander Campbell, who seems to be on stage for most of the work.  The dance never seems to stop.  Indeed, Corder has even choreographed a pas de deux in the section to music originally scored to cover a scene change.

While dramatically it can be argued things should have been stronger, technically the whole cast was outstanding.  Campbell was amazingly light in his footwork and solid in his partnering.  Jenna Roberts was a deliciously icy fairy, although a touch more evil might have been nice.  And Natasha Oughtred, again featured in a major role after her move from London, made for a delightful, happy, soft and carefree bride.

That there are references to other works is hardly surprising.  After all, the score itself is loosely based on snippets of Tchaikovsky, and the story definitely has parallels with “Swan Lake”, with the fairy and bride as Odette and Odile respectively.  The most visual reference though is to “The Sleeping Beauty”, and comes right at the denouement, as the Young Man is lifted high by the fairy’s sprites, to once more receive her kiss.

The whole is helped along enormously by John Macfarlane’s incredibly evocative sets.  The outdoor scenes simply scream ice and cold.  Cleverly, the sides of the stage are left as black flats, which simply add to the sense of space.  The sets shift from wilderness, to forest, to indoors with such amazing ease.  You almost don’t notice it happening.  Having said that, I’m not quite so sure about the indoor scenery itself, which looked rather more like the inside of a big house than the villager’s cottage you might expect.  The red colours certainly emphasised the difference from the outdoors though.

“Petrushka”, Fokine’s story of a simple-minded puppet in love with a ballerina-doll, is a busy and colourful ballet.  Alexandre Benois’ designs certainly radiate the atmosphere of a nineteenth-century winter fair.  Alexander Campbell, who had a busy evening, was very expressive as he brought human emotions to his straw-filled being.  Ambra Vallo, the object of his desires, was as graceful as a doll can be, while Dominic Antonucci swaggered menacingly as the Moor.  After all the fun, the sight of the spirit of Petrushka on the roof is touching indeed.

“Card Game”, which concluded the evening, has its moments, but it’s far from being the comedy ballet it’s billed as.  Some of the imagery is good though, such as the way each of the three deals is dealt, and the moment when five dancers fan out like cards in the hand.  Jamie Bond was excellent as the Joker, a sly and scheming master of ceremonies.

As always, The Royal Ballet Sinfonia guided us through the programme, with Barry Wordsworth, conducting for “Petrushka” and “Card Game”, and Nicholas Kok for “Baiser”.

And so Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Stravinsky-fest comes to an end.  “Card Game” was not the best ballet to go out on, and the composer might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there have been some wonderful triple bills over the past few seasons.  A highlight was undoubtedly last year’s superb all-Balanchine evening.  From this programme, it will be interesting to see how Corder’s “Baiser” develops, and whether the dancers will start to add depth to their characters, or whether it remains, a little like the original scenario, a curiously semi-narrative work.

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