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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Raymonda Act III', 'Concerto', 'The Firebird'

by David Mead

October 9th, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

The highlight of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s autumnal mixed programme was undoubtedly Kenneth MacMillan’s sublime “Concerto”.  Originally dance against a grey background, Deborah MacMillan has redesigned the backcloth for this Birmingham Royal Ballet production so that it suggests an opaque window, maybe looking out from a dance studio.  For once, the set was a piece of tinkering that works.

“Concerto” has a very neo-classical look about it, so it’s no great surprise that Birmingham Royal Ballet dances it well, but how well!  The ballet may be non-narrative, but the slow second movement especially is far from abstract.  The story may be elusive, and we may not know quite what the relationship is between the two dancers, but from the moment they appear, then slowly walk towards each other, you just know there is something there.  Both Natasha Oughtred and Jamie Bond danced with clarity, precision and a fluidity that only added to the strains of the piano in Shostakovich’s beautiful score.  For this section, the backcloth and lighting now suggests a setting sun, which adds to the mood even more.  Bond was a strong and reliable partner, especially in the more complicated lifts.  The whole pas de deux looked unforced and natural – always a good sign.

The opening movement was led by Laetitia Lo Sardo and Joseph Caley, while Angela Paul was excellent in the upbeat final movement, leading the soloists as they dashed and leapt energetically and gracefully across the stage.  With its colourful yet simple yellow, red and orange costumes, bare stage and clean, uncomplicated lines, at first sight the work is very untypical of MacMillan.  But look deeper, especially at that intriguing second movement with its elusive story, and maybe it’s not so far from some of his other shorter works after all.

The programme opened with Act III of Rudolph Nureyev’s production of “Raymonda”.  Set in an ornate white and gold Byzantine hall, and danced to Glazunov’s more than listenable-to score, it should have been a sparkling starter, but it never quite made the mark.  The fact the choreography is highly repetitive with enough cabrioles to last a lifetime doesn’t help.  Despite this, there were three excellent solos from Momoko Hirata, Natasha Oughtred and especially Céline Gittens, who was so light and sure.  Sadly some of the male partnering seemed rather less than secure.  Given this is, after all, supposed to be a wedding, Nao Sakuma, as Raymonda, looked far from her usual sunny self, although César Morales as Jean de Brienne, looks a useful addition to the company.

The evening concluded with Fokine’s “The Firebird”, which as ever went down well with the Birmingham audience, with a feisty Carol-Anne Millar in the leading role.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Nicholas Kok, with Jonathan Higgins on piano giving a perfect rendition of the Shostakovich in “Concerto”.

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