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Birmingham Royal Ballet

Summer Celebration: 'The Grand Tour', 'Faster', 'The Dream'

by David Mead

June 27, 2012 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Broadway choreographer Joe Layton’s 1971 ballet “The Grand Tour” is about the antics of various Hollywood stars, other celebrities and an American spinster and a couple of Italian stowaways aboard a 1920s cruise ship. The costumes and art deco promenade deck set were most lively. The ballet, though, quickly became rather becalmed.

I can imagine that “The Grand Tour” could be wickedly funny. When first made it probably was. But it needs the right cast, and it needs some knowledge of the various characters involved. Most of the audience would probably have known who Noel Coward was and recognised him, although rumour has it that at least one dancer in the company did not. The likes of Gertrude Lawrence, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, George Bernard Shaw, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas would, I fear, merely have been names on a cast sheet.

Although each does get to show their character through dance, it’s a ballet that relies much on the ability to say lots while doing little. The little gestures and looks are, if anything, more important than the dance. Matthew Lawrence, very good at just such roles, was an excellent Coward.

There is humour, but it is often underplayed, very subtle and, on this occasion at least, fell largely flat only rarely raising an audible laugh from the audience. One of the few smile inducing moments came when Fairbanks (Joseph Caley, looking very smart in a golf sweater) took Toklas (Jade Heusen) for a waltz, only to be interrupted by Stein (danced by a man, Rory Mackay), who proceeded to lead her in a tango. Stein was actually one of the more interesting characters, stern and straight faced, but with a hint of a wicked sense of humour underneath. Most charming of among the cast was Victoria Marr as the sweet, naïve and somewhat awestruck American tourist. She also gets the best dance, a pas de deux with handsome Chief Steward Jamie Bond. She never, though, loses her awkwardness. It’s a nice and realistic touch.

Trying to depict sport in dance is a tricky business. Many have tried. Few have succeeded. So it was a pleasure to find that Bintley’s “Faster”, created in response to London’s staging of the 2012 Olympics, was rather good. The choreography, which comes in scenes related to different sports around a lengthy central pas de deux, is strong, athletic and makes clever use of sporty motifs and movements without every getting too much like mime or making them too obvious.

Bintley wanted to call the ballet “Faster Higher Stronger” after the Olympic motto, but was refused permission by the IOC. Someone needs to get a sense of perspective. I know commercial realities are behind it all, but I would suggest that using it here would do more good for the Games than any association with fast food mega-companies and the like.

It opens with a salute to the crowds before setting off on a series of scenes based around particular sports, the dancers all in skin-tight takes on gymnastics wear, swimwear, cycling bodysuits, basketball sweats and athletics one and two-pieces by young designer Becs Andrews, who recently worked with Didy Veldman on “Momo”, her new work for Bern:Ballett in Switzerland. There are lots of very flat stomachs and sleek bodies and legs to be seen.

Bintley moves on neatly between sections with none outstaying their welcome. Best are the basketball men, bouncing as they dribble, leap and shoot imaginary balls. There was more than a hint of the Jets in West Side Story here, I thought. The gymnastics trio of Ambra Vallo, Jamie Bond and William Bracewell was equally impressive. Vallo was trained as a gymnast and it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the company performing the difficult balances with such aplomb. The central pas de deux between Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis featured many difficult balances and lifts, some so tricky they still looked a little uncertain. Rounding things off are the athletes, who appear to the racing head on towards the audience, jockeying for position as they do so.

Everything is helped along by another quality score from Australian Matthew Hindson, who worked with Bintley on his equally impressive “e=mc2”.

Concluding the evening was Ashton’s “The Dream” in which Chi Cao was a most stern Oberon. Nao Sakuma had all the steps but a fairy queen is not really her thing; and does she really need to wear a blonde wig? Matthew Dingman followed up his superb portrayal of Gabriel Oak in the previous week’s “Far From the Madding Crowd”, with a most mischievous Puck. Of the lovers, Carol-Anne Millar was perfect as the confused Helena. She has developed a wicked sense of how to do comedy in dance without every going totally over the top.

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