BRB have already toured their new production of Aladdin extensively round the UK this season. Now they bring it to the Coliseum. The work was originally made by David Bintley, BRB’s Artistic Director, for a Japanese company five years ago. Now staged for his own company, it has new designs to fit the UK’s smaller stages.
Bintley sets out his stall very clearly in the programme notes. Aladdin is “the least ‘deep’ ballet I have ever made…a ballet that does what is says on the tin. It tells the story”. He does rather set your expectations almost defiantly low here. Don’t expect big emotional highs and lows or deeply defined characters, just a clear narration of a story that everyone knows. So if we judge it on these terms how does it do?
Plus points must start with the gorgeous designs in eye-popping colours (sets by Dick Bird) and attractive costumes (Sue Blane). We move from a cave of riches/jewels in the first act, where the stalactites and stalagmites change colour to match the jewels that are dancing, to a dreamingly gorgeous bathhouse (with real water in the fountain) for the Princess in the second, ravishingly lit by Mark Jonathan. There are cleverly-judged special effects for the appearance of the Djinn from the lamp and a neatly-done flying carpet.
The storytelling is clear and easy to follow, and packed with dancing episodes. There is fine dancing from the two leads. César Morales is cheerfully tireless as Aladdin. Nao Sakuma always looks refined and elegant as Princess Badr al-Budur, working her way through countless costume changes. Tzu-Chao Chou has a fine time of it spinning and leaping as the blue-skinned The Djinn of the lamp. All of these characters are very lightly sketched: Sakuma is just required to look beautiful, which indeed she does. We know it’s all just a story: nothing ever seems at stake. We never worry that Aladdin will in fact get his head cut off by the Sultan’s guards. There is no dramatic tension. Iain Mackay as the evil Mahgrib (another fabulous costume, but not much dancing) does his best to bite the scenery and is rewarded with some panto-style booing at the curtain calls.
The first act is packed with divertissements for the jewels Aladdin finds in the cave. (Though there was something odd about having this display in the first act, it felt rather more like the kind of material you might expect in the third). The audience particularly liked the Rubies couple, where a bare-chested Tyrone Singleton threw Ambra Vallo high in the air and wound her round him like a scarf. Natasha Oughtred had a warm and flirtatious stage presence as Sapphire.
In Act 2 Bintley gives us a touch of Busby Berkeley Hollywood-style glamour in the massed ranks of the Djinn’s blue and gold retinue. There a lot of dancing, an endless flow of steps, though after a while it does have a rather generic feel. The cast work hard. Bintley scores high on the productivity stakes but the quality control department may be undermanned.
On the minus side must come the music. Carl Davis’s score sounds like film music, and a particularly forgettable film at that. Don’t expect to come out humming any tunes. Overall, it’s a colourful spectacle but with little emotional investment. The princess, though decorative, is a bit wet for most girls today to identify with. Marion Tait is possibly the finest and most subtle female character dancer in the UK’s ballet companies and it is a shame that Aladdin’s mother is painted as such a cliché: even she can’t make it the role more than a cartoon.
It may do what is says on the tin by way of sketching out a narrative, but that doesn’t mean it’s a satisfying overall experience. Bintley and BRB are both capable of much more fulfilling work than this.
So why go for such a simplistic approach ? The justification for mounting what is intended as an uncomplicated crowd pleaser may be that BRB needs a big box office-friendly production to keep the cash coming in. However, the company already has a number of audience-friendly full length works in its repertoire, but which offer something more substantial. These include their very fine Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast, and Bintley’s recent production of Cinderella (another beautifully designed work, but much more going for it than Aladdin in terms of music, dance and drama). BRB’s season concludes with Coppelia and Giselle. Triple bills seem to have shrunk drastically.
The production has been funded by generous support from sponsors and BRB’s audience and is a co-production with Houston Ballet. This approach is very enterprising but it is a little sad that the thinking appears to be that what the public wants is something as slick and unchallenging as this. Despite its ostensible appeal, Aladdin doesn’t seem to be selling as well in London as must have been hoped. Yet down the road at the Opera House, Wheeldon’s Alice (a production initially viewed as somewhat shallow and over reliant on visual effects) is still packing them in. Working out how to achieve that exercises the minds of all the other UK ballet companies considerably, but no one seems to have cracked it yet.