Summer Dance at the Birmingham Hippodrome
by David Mead
August 18-30 , 2011 -- Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK
‘Carlos Acosta: Premieres Plus’
Three weeks of dance at the Birmingham Hippodrome this summer got off to a less than auspicious start. An evening with Carlos Acosta and Zenaida Yanowsky sounded so promising. But “Premieres Plus”, in which the muscular Cuban dancer staged and performed his own selection of choreography was lucklustre and disappointing.
It was a programme full of introversion and of peering into the soul. You would have thought that might have guaranteed emotion even of it was only angst. But for huge parts of the evening all there was to see was a black hole.
Acosta had sewed the works together as much as possible with, it has to be said, some success. But with everything looking so alike, transitions were easily missed. It wasn’t only the movement that looked dreadfully similar, so were the costumes and lighting. Yanowsky spent most of the evening dressed in an unflattering white number, with Acosta always in black. At least he got to remove his shirt. That was about as much variation as there was. As for the lighting, part one was danced in shaft after shaft of light from above, the action always taking place in or around a small lit square on an otherwise dark stage. The second half at least had something slightly different when Yanowsky’s solo from Kim Brandstrups “A Footnote to Ashton”, was danced in a sea of candles. After that, though, it was back to the gloom. Single lights can work wonders as it does highlight the limbs, but all the time?
The best moments all involved Yanowsky. In the “Footnotes” solo, her hands spoke volumes as she gave a sense of anguish and pain. “Sirin”, a new solo created for her by her brother Yuri was inspired by the mythological Russian being of the same name with the body of a bird and the head of a woman. Her beautifully articulate arms certainly looked bird like, but more like a bird of prey, one moment soft and flowing, the next harsh and urgent. The best choreography, though, came in Edwaard Liang’s “Sight Unseen”, a flowing duet packed with strange angles and clever lifts, and in which Yanowsky constantly fell into Acosta’s rescuing arms.
Of the rest, particularly disappointing was Russell Maliphant’s “Two”. How one remembers the excitement and fireworks when performed by Sylvie Guillem. Reworked here for Acosta, there was lots of posing and muscle flexing, but the spark had all but been extinguished. And while a slow motion film of two naked bodies moving and caressing, supposedly underwater, was cleverly put together by director Simon Elliott, one wondered what on earth it was doing here, except to act as a filler and give the stage crew a chance to get rid of those candles.
In the programme, Acosta talked about how “Premieres Plus” is the latest step on a path of exploration as a dancer and an artist. I rather fear he has lost his way.
The second week could not have been more different. The Guangdong troupe’s take on “Swan Lake” may not be the ballet as most people imagine it, and I’m sure it would have a few tut-tutting or holding their hands up in horror, but it was a most wonderful evening’s entertainment. Surprisingly, given everything that’s been piled into it, their take on the classic does retain the essence of the story. Here, a European prince falls in love with a Chinese swan. After an impressive prologue that would stand well in any regular ballet production, our Prince journeys to the East to find her. It’s a neat retelling that allows all manner of influences and dances to be brought in to what would normally be the Act I ballroom scene. There’s even an appearance by a camel and an elephant.
There is classical ballet in there of course, not to mention moments that draw on Chinese opera and Chinese dance, but it’s the acrobatics, juggling, tightrope walking, contortionism, martial arts and goodness knows what else, that really gets the audience going. In the West this is circus, but we sometimes forget that in East Asia all these things have long been highly respected art forms easily on a par with ballet, so bringing them together is not as strange as it may first seem.
It is a non-stop feast of action that soon had the audience on the edges of their seats and that made the Cirque du Soleil look tame. In a whole new take on pole dancing, acrobats arrive and leap between thirty foot high poles, often arriving upside down and holding on only with their legs and feet. There is some very clever juggling with hats, mirrored by a group of ladies en pointe behind in, it has to be said, some of the most gorgeous red dresses ever seen on stage. The dance of the cygnets becomes the dance of the four little frogs, performed almost entirely on handstand. There are scenes that are quite surreal, most notably the Spanish dance, performed by women en pointe but with their male partners on unicycles. There’s even humour, courtesy of four swans danced by men, who make a pretty good job of out-Trocking the Trocks. But this “Swan Lake” is far from a collection of specialty acts. Everything is woven together quite seamlessly. Given that every show features the same performers, there is no second cast, it was amazing I only spotted one minor mishap.
The stars, of course, are the hunky Wei Baohua and his supremely slim and lithe wife Wu Zhengdan. The show came about after they won the Golden Lion Prize at the China Acrobatics Competition and the Golden Clown Award at the Monte Carlo International Acrobatic Competition in 2004 with their “Oriental Swan-Ballet on Top of Head” (Chinese titles do not translate well into English, as you probably gather!).
All the pas de deux are acrobatically complex, the final one especially so. The music helps, of course, but what was surprising was that it still had that spine tingling effect of the Petipa. Of course, everyone was waiting for the moments when Wu dances en pointe on her husband’s head and shoulders. I’ll swear most people in the audience were holding their breath. It may be over quite quickly, but it is most impressive.
The new stage production of that great Hollywood musical “Top Hat”, one of the best, and certainly the most successful of the nine movies that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, was equally enjoyable.
The story translates to the stage well. It’s a typical mistaken-identity plot that makes full use of all the opportunities that brings. Dale Tremont (Summer Strallen) assumes that American entertainer Jerry Travers (Tom Chambers) is in fact his business manager Horace Hardwick, husband of her friend Madge. Dale also has a jealous suitor, Italian fashion designer Alberto (“For the woman the kiss - for the man the sword”) Beddini. Of course it all ends happily, thanks largely to some last-minute quick thinking by Horace’s valet Bates.
What this adaptation really has going for it, of course, is Irving Berlin’s wonderful music, re-orchestrated especially for the show and superbly played by a 14-piece band under musical director Dan Jackson. A shame, then, that it was over-amped on occasions, even succeeding in almost drowning out some of the tap. Alongside “No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)”, “No Strings”, “Cheek to Cheek”, “The Piccolino” and the eponymous “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”, all classics from the film, White has added other gems including “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (both originally from “Follow the Fleet”), “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (“The Cocoanauts”), and “Better Luck Next Time” (“Easter Parade”). All have been, the music retains all Berlin’s down-to-earth, naturalistic style. The additions gel nicely, all emerging naturally from the story.
Equally outstanding are the designs. 2011 Laurence Olivier Award Winner Hildegard Bechtler has produced a beautiful art deco set that changes seamlessly between London parks, hotels and St. Mark’s Square in Venice. There’s even an interlude on an airplane. Jon Morrell’s costumes include some delicious dresses of the period. Bill Deamer makes use of iconic images such as the backbend that finishes “Cheek to Cheek” in choreography that generally hits the mark, although the use of women in the ensemble for “Top Hat” looked decidedly odd.
In the programme, Fred Astaire’s daughter Ava comments that her main reservation about the production was that whoever played the male lead should not play her father but the character of Jerry Travis, the character he played in the film. It’s a great sentiment and she is absolutely correct, but it is impossible to escape the great man. His presence is writ through the show. Chambers, star of BBC hit dramas “Holby City” and “Waterloo Road”, and a former “Strictly Come Dancing” winner, tries very hard, but sadly comes up short. His tap dancing is very good, but elsewhere he looks very stiff and lacks the lightness and glide that much of Deamer’s dance calls for. His accent was also somewhat awry, neither American nor English, and there was a lack of chemistry between him and Strallen who clearly revelled in the Ginger Rogers role. This lady can certainly dance and sing, even if I could have done without some of the vibrato she likes to slip in.
Elsewhere there were solid performances from Martin Ball, who increasingly reminded me of Rex Harrison in his prime, and Vivian Parry, who play the Hardwicks. Both showed great comic timing, especially in Act II. There are some great one liners, especially for Madge. “I came handsomely out of my first marriage,” she announces, “I got custody of his money.” Funniest moments though came from Ricardo Afonso who played the crazy Italian Alberto Beddini. Sounding for all the world like Captain Bertorelli from the BBC sitcom “‘Allo ‘Allo” his mannerisms, accent, misquoting of idioms and general murdering of the English language had the audience in stitches on several occasions. Stephen Boswell’s drole Bates, Horace Hardwick’s valet was also a delight.
Despite the reservations there is plenty to enjoy here. “Top Hat” makes for a fun evening. Despite running for nigh on two and three-quarter hours it never dragged for a second. And I guarantee that you will leave the theatre humming the numbers and remembering the lines.
“Top Hat” continues on tour throughout the Autumn. See www.tophatonstage.com.
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