Birmingham Royal Ballet
The King Dances, Carmina burana
matinee, 18 June 2015
David Bintley has been directing Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) for 20 years and this bill, coupling the first piece he created as director (Carmina burana) with the latest piece (The King Dances), is the big celebration. And right to celebrate: most artistic directors don’t come anywhere near to running a company for 20 years and it takes a lot of drive, commitment and success with your audience to achieve. I think much of that is down to Bintley being a choreographing director who arranges it that he does the vast majority of the new creative work they present. Bintley knows how to tell stories and be a showman with shorter works and the result is that it’s very much a company in his image and extolling the virtues of what you might call traditional British ballet, largely to audiences away from London who appreciate the approach. The use of contemporary choreographers (Wayne McGregor, Akram Khan etc) in other ballet companies is not for BRB under Bintley, and as other companies increasingly push to the new it strikes me that Bintley’s riposte is his latest work which goes right back to the beginning of ballet in the 17th century. It’s a reminder that ballet’s roots and tradition transcend contemporary fashion.
The King Dances is set in 1653 when most agree ballet was effectively born as the young Louis XIV appeared on stage as Apollo in Le Ballet de la nuit. From such royal love and interest the French academy of dance sprang 8 years later and the unstoppable progress of staged dance ever since. It was a time when men ruled the stage and this is a man’s ballet – it has to be said a very pretty man’s ballet with gorgeous designs by Katrina Lindsay.
The 35 minutes of The King Dances is broken down into 4 sections or Watches: an introduction, some divertissements, a sleep/night-terrors section and finally paying homage to the king who, dressed as the sun, makes a grand entrance and, with the coming of day, the end of the ballet. In his introduction Bintley talks of the piece spanning from this 1653 beginning through to the virtuosity of today, but I think the actuality is more subtle than that and I never really saw all those boys doing huge jumps and the pyrotechnics you often see today. That said, the end of the ballet does feature a big 21st century light display, individually impressive if rather at odds with the rest of the ballet. For me this was Bintley working with a much reduced palette of steps and movement and it’s in the repeating of simple steps that The King Dances often looks best. You can see the link to today and why ballet has endured. The “less is more” also applied to partnering with simple but elegant lifts and a gorgeous pas de deux for the King (William Bracewell) and the Moon, danced by the only girl on stage, Yijing Zhang. The night terrors of the King were also wonderfully realised, Bracewell, literally enveloped by all his demons.
The King Dances has a lot of named roles in each of its Watches and there is a lot going on – I think it’s a work for unpacking more each time you see it. The various sections are also well underpinned by Stephen Montague’s score, which I’d call sympathetically modern and without a ‘usual suspects’ and cinematic feel. I particularly like its restrained and mysterious sections and I hope they both work together again. So is The King Dances good ballet? It’s certainly distinctive and makes you think about the art and Bintley’s craft as conjurer of steps and showman, too. It looks a million dollars but it can be confusing, for example Ian Mackay has 3 roles that aren’t immediately obvious and there is no synopsis in the programme. What might provide more illumination is a BBC4 documentary about the work, due for transmission in September. I look forward to it.
Carmina burana is Bintley (and his designer Philip Prowse) on steroids, I think – which of course matches Orff’s use of orchestra and choir. A bold piece about the temptations of life – you might not understand every reference, but by Jove you always get the drift and remember some iconic moments, for me, as the Gluttons tackle eating a swan, the Pony Tail girls joyfully skip on the village green and the young man ‘Sick with Love’ is assailed by tarts. Tyrone Singleton gave a terrific account of the young lover and Celine Gittens as Fortuna led out the whole extravaganza with panache and authority. Only a soloist at the moment she needs rapid promotion to principal level. Carmina is 65 minutes long and although there are some lees tight moments, you are never far from good dancing and the whole company do it, and Bintley, most proud.