Autumn Glory (‘Checkmate’, ‘Symphonic Variations’, ‘Pineapple Poll’)
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham; October 7, 2011
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.
Natasha Oughtred and Cesar Morales in Symphonic Variations. Photo Roy Smiljanic.JPG [ 55.16 KiB | Viewed 8818 times ]
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.
Robert Parker as Captain Belaye in Pineapple Poll. Photo Roy Smiljanic.JPG [ 55.76 KiB | Viewed 8818 times ]
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.Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Autumn Glory” programme continues on tour to London (Sadler’s Wells) and Plymouth (Theatre Royal)