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Birmingham Royal Ballet: Autumn 2011

'Beauty and the Beast' and Autumn Glory triple bill

by David Mead

September 29 and October 7, 2011 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

"Beauty and the Beast"
David Bintley’s ballet of the classic “Beauty and the Beast” story is a grand sight indeed. Philip Prowse’s glorious set, all burnished gold, red and black, rises over everything, opening and closing like a child’s fold-out book. It is all very Harry Potter. The stage converts cleverly from forest to castle interior, outside becoming inside in an instant. Once indoors, particularly near touches include self-lighting candles, a jug that magically rises to fill a goblet all on its own, and a chair that comes alive to cradle whoever is sleeping in it. Throw in Mark Jonathan’s glorious atmospheric lighting, even if it might be a little too dark for some, and you have a sumptuous ballet indeed.

Bintley has opted for a straight telling of the story of a prince who has been turned into a beast and cursed to live among the animals for being so heartless until he wins the love of a beautiful girl. The young lady duly arrives after a merchant picks a rose from the Beast’s castle thus incurring his anger, his life only being spared after he agrees that his daughter Belle should come to stay with him. Of course, she eventually falls in love with him and the spell is broken.

Bintley narrates it all with great clarity, any mime unfussy and kept to a minimum. Natasha Oughtred was delightful as Belle. While kind to the Beast, it was a very detached kindness, one not borne out of love, and certainly not one full of smiles. Things were very different at the end, though. Her face when the creature is reborn as the Prince was as sunny as the Indian Summer weather outside.

Tyrone Singleton was a noble Beast. He has the height and stature to carry the role well, even when covered head to toe by his costume. That can make it difficult to empathise with the character but his portrayal made clear that any outer aggression was always underpinned by tenderness and even despair at his situation.

The ensemble was outstanding, the group dance featuring all the animals and birds in the castle in Act II being one of the highlights of the ballet. I don’t care much for some of the human characters though. It’s all a little too caricature and pantomimic for my liking. I know Belle’s two sisters are not supposed to be pleasant, but do they really have to appear to be reprising Cinderella’s stepsisters? Marion Tait’s Grandmère was, as ever though, wonderfully amusing, and Angela Paul was perfect as the vixen turned into a wild girl.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy gave a good account of Glen Buhr’s score, which certainly illustrates the dance well, even if it if fails to provide a single memorable tune and is perhaps a little too literal on occasions.


Autumn Glory (‘Checkmate’, ‘Symphonic Variations’, ‘Pineapple Poll’)

If there is one thing David Bintley is really good at, storytelling apart, it’s dipping into Birmingham Royal Ballet’s back catalogue and coming up with a gem for triple bills. And with his Autumn Glory programme of the dramatic Checkmate, the sublime Symphonic Variations, and the delightfully silly Pineapple Poll he’s found another three diamonds, and very British ones at that.

Checkmate is Ninette de Valois’ 1937 chess-inspired masterpiece in which Love and Death fight out a battle through chess. A contest between the red and black pieces (white was not chosen as a colour simply because it doesn’t look so good on stage), the ballet symbolises the state of Europe at the time, the Red King and Queen reflecting the weakness of those unwilling or unable to stand up to the rising forces of darkness. The Black Queen, meanwhile, takes cold, calculating ruthlessness to another level as she uses fair means and foul to achieve her ends.

It is full of impressively structured ensemble work. It was impressively danced too. The pawns speared their pointe shoes as they marched around, and the knights were full of bravura. Carabosse might scare the kids, but if you are looking for a really cold, hard villainess then it is de Valois’ Black Queen you are after. Samara Downs was perfect; icy yet still seductive. Her drawing in then calculated killing of the Michael O’Hare’s Red King sent a chill down the spine.

Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations is equally full of intricacies, only here they are lyrical, genteel and more subtle. It’s a ballet where stillness, or at least a sense of peace, is as important as motion; budding choreographers take note. Leading the three couples, Iain Mackay and Jenna Roberts were always at one with the music. It was a newcomer to the company who constantly caught the eye though, the always smiling Taiwanese-born Chou Tzu-chao, recently joined from the Australian Ballet, showing exemplary light, neat footwork, some excellent allegro, and impressive understanding of the essence of the piece. A shame, then, that the performance was partly spoiled by some very noisy pointe shoes, something rarely heard in Birmingham.

Another change of mood took us to Portsmouth and the good ship H.M.S. Hot Cross Bun for the Gibert and Sullivan inspired “Pineapple Poll”. With designs by Osbert Lancaster, music by Sullivan, mostly I think from “Trial by Jury”, and John Cranko’s heady mix of folk-inspired dances, downtrodden sailors, and cross-dressing girls all chasing the same handsome hero, it’s always a sure fire hit with audiences.

Martin Lawrence’s Captain Belaye could never be described as jolly, but he was certainly suave and handsome. Part of the humour comes from the fact that he is so full of himself, so sure of himself, that he is totally oblivious to all the ludicrous things going on around him, not least when the women take over crewing his ship. Alongside him, Angela Paul was a delightfully sunny Poll. Maureya Lebowitz, another newcomer, this time from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, was a delightfully daffy Blanche, a sort of super-dumb blonde in pointe shoes, while Victoria Marr as her mother was nicely bossy and domineering.

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia was conducted by Philip Ellis. Jonathan Higgins’ piano playing of César Franck’s “Symphonic Variations” was a particular delight to the ear.


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