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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Beauty and the Beast'

by David Mead

October 1, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Although originally made and programmed as an alternative to “The Nutcracker”, David Bintley’s “Beauty and the Beast” is far from the jolly Christmas fare that well-worked ballet usually serves up.  Now appearing in the autumn schedule, it may be a fairy tale, but like all the best fairy tales it’s more than a children’s story.  There are lots of humour and many comic characters, but Bintley has overlaid matters with plenty of dark symbolism.

A prologue tells us that a prince has been turned into a beast for being so cruel, heartless, and vain.  He is sentenced to live among other animals until he wins the love of a beautiful girl.  A merchant takes refuge in the Beast’s sinister castle following a storm.  On leaving, he picks a rose, and thus incurs the Beast’s wrath, his life only spared if his beautiful daughter Belle comes to stay with him.  With time, she comes to see the person underneath, and like in all good fairy tales, true love breaks the spell.

With its mix of humour, scary moments, and good choreography, it’s easy to see why the ballet is popular with all ages.  The Beast’s castle is almost Harry Potter-esque and comes complete with candelabra that light themselves, a flagon that rises from the table and fills a goblet without any human or beastly help, and an armchair that comes alive to comfort, yet imprison the merchant.  And Bintley does lead us neatly and clearly through events, managing to tell the story without overly resorting to mime, or feeling he has to give as what often seems to be the inevitable and sometimes interminable series of divertissements followed by a grand pas de deux.

What the ballet lacks is in the way of strong characters.  Robert Parker, making his welcome return following his exploration of the possibilities of a career as an airline pilot, and who originally created the role of the Beast, danced and acted powerfully, demonstrating both sides of the Beast’s personality.  Best of all was the scene in Act II when he suddenly thinks Belle is not returning, which can only mean his death.  But the need for a mask does restrict greatly the possibilities for expression.

Elsewhere, everyone seemed so superficial.  Elisha Willis as Belle was as pretty as a porcelain doll and technically fine, but where was the shock or fear when she first encountered the Beast?  Surely she would have been a little more surprised when he turned back into the Prince.  This may not be entirely Willis’ fault.  Belle is, after all, little more than the means by which the Beast returns to humankind, but it would be interesting to see what others might be able to bring to the role.

“Beauty and the Beast” does have its moments.  In the wedding scene, Bintley appears to draw on Ashton’s Cinderella, especially in his comic, pantomimic characters.  Belle’s feisty sisters did little for me, but Marion Tait’s Grandmère was a delight and even outdid David Morse’s depiction of Belle’s father.  Of the ensemble scenes, the birds’ dance at the end of Act I had more than a hint of menace as they swooped around the stage led by Kosuke Yamomoto’s evil looking, almost Rothbart-like raven.  And the end is beautifully understated as the curse is lifted, although, again, there was no great sense of joy or any other emotion as one might expect.  If Belle recognised the Prince as he guided her through the steps they danced at the ball, she didn’t show it.

The ballet is well-paced, helped along by Glen Buhr’s score, which rolls along, never pausing for a moment to allow us to catch our breath, or come to that applause.  It does lack any sort of stand out moment though.  Although the music is full of perfectly listenable-to rhythms and compliments the dance well, afterwards you find you actually can’t remember any of it. 

Best of all was Philip Prowse’s dark and mysterious set, which opened and closed like a giant children’s fold-out book turned on its end.  The mood was added to by Mark Jonathan’s atmospheric lighting, which often gave little more than a frosty glow, focusing only on one part of the stage, leaving the rest of the set lurking suggestively in the gloom.  Visually stunning but sadly, it left you wanting more from the characters.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Paul Murphy.

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