Concerto, The Lady and the Fool, In the Upper Room
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham; September 22, 2010
by David Mead
Exuberant, and energetic, tender and melancholic, optimistic yet reflective…all adjectives that could be used to describe Kenneth MacMillan’s “Concerto,” and all qualities that Birmingham Royal Ballet more than brought to the stage.
In the first and third movements BRB’s dancers showed all the light-hearted energy that runs through the Shostakovich score. The opening lead pairing of Ambra Vallo and Jospeh Caley, and especially Gaylene Cummerfield in the jaunty third movement captured perfectly the eager and brisk nature of the piece. All were more than ably backed up by the corps, especially in the third movement, full of MacMillan’s inventive take on military drill that sometimes makes the work resemble a precision military tattoo.
It is though the achingly sublime pas de deux of the slow second movement that lingers in the memory. From its subdued, almost sorrowful opening the duet develops almost imperceptibly. But before you know what has happened it has grabbed you and is not letting go. Accompanied by Jonathan Higgins’ tender and lyrical piano playing, Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton were utterly beguiling. It may be a duet without fireworks, but it is so packed full of emotion. It left everyone emotionally drained.
While “The Lady and the Fool” had a few genuine moments of wistfulness and was nicely danced, it lacked much in the way of emotion or passion. This is not entirely the dancers’ fault. Cranko’s tale of a lady who is courted by three rich or famous suitors, but who rejects them all for a down-at-heel clown, Moondog, is dreadfully shallow. It is supposed to have comedy moments, and while I’m sure was a time when the ballet looked fresh and funny, today the humour in particular seems very dated. The music and décor do not help. While Charles Mackerras’ arrangement of selections from Verdi’s operas is lively and tuneful, all are almost instantly forgettable. Kate Ford’s costumes might be largely fine, but oh those tasteless pink drapes that envelop the action. I can’t think of anything less likely in a grand lady’s house.
It is hardly surprising that Nao Sakuma as La Capricciosa (the ‘Lady’) fell for Iain Mackay’s Moondog. Her three main suitors at the ball are so lacking in character they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. Best performance of all though came from César Morales as Bootface, the only dancer who made us care what happens, especially as we worry whether he will be left all alone as the happy lovers exit.
Twyla Tharp’s ballet meets modern dance classic “In the Upper Room” is a favourite with Birmingham audiences. As ever they lapped it up, roaring at the end, and calling the breathless cast back again and again. It’s easy to see why it is so liked. It is full of invention and like a roller-coaster with moments of soaring movement and music that occasionally reach a point of suspension before rushing at breakneck speed into the next section. Tharp had just choreographed the Mikhail Baryshnikov/Gregory Hines movie “White Nights” when she made this and it’s impossible not to see connections in some of the movement.
Despite the overall audience reaction, and this says a lot about the extremely high standard to which BRB usually dance the work, I found this performance disappointing. The dancers should surf their way through the piece, riding the breakers, swept along by Glass’ wonderful music. There were some excellent performances, notably by the trainer-wearing Elisha Willis, Carol-Anne Millar and Robert Parker, and Ambra Vallo and Natasha Oughtred as the recurring couple in red pointe shoes, but one or two of the others seemed to be struggling with the piece rather than going with it. It is a work that allows for some individual stylistic interpretation within limits (who can ever forget the Bolshoi’s dire attempt at this a few years ago?), but it is also one where the energy, joy and freedom of the piece should be communicated to the audience. That is not going to happen if you perform with a totally expressionless face and body as one individual did. There were also a few slips, out of kilter unison moments and other glitches. I feel sure it was a one-off, but they did make it seem very odd at times, and very un-BRB.“Concerto” and “In the Upper Room” can be seen during October in London (Sadler’s Wells) and Plymouth, in a triple bill alongside George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” See http://www.brb.org.uk for details