A fascinating week in British Ballet it was last week as both English National Ballet (ENB) and Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) premiered brand-new full-evening works. The companies have very different artistic visions with ENB’s director Tamara Rojo looking to inject fresh and new ideas from contemporary choreographer Akram Khan for their much-admired retelling of Giselle, and BRB’s David Bintley, a traditionalist of a director and choreographer, at the helm for 20 years, who wouldn’t dream of giving a full story ballet commission like The Tempest to anybody but himself. At least that’s not happened in recent memory, though of course he has created many works over the years and work that really resonates with the audience and is much loved – Hobson’s Choice comes most memorably to mind. Anyway back-to-back we had two views of what ballet can be today – a modernist view and a traditional view. Scope for them both to succeed and we are lucky to have two such premieres, but, based on this snapshot, give me more of the modern vision please.
Although it’s Bintley’s view that The Tempest “…is relatively simple – not much happens!”, in this production it feels very complex with many characters and interactions on stage and I’d love to tell you how Bintley has simplified it and/or made it all crystal clear in the telling. But I defy anybody to untangle what’s happening on stage unless they know the story already or can read and then recall the long synopsis in the programme. Sadly I just didn’t buy into or care about any of the characters. I tittered occasionally at the drunken and other antics of Caliban, Trinculo and Stephano (excellent performances from Tyrone Singleton, James Barton and Valentin Olovyanniko), but was at my most forlorn in the pas de deux for Ferdinand and Miranda. This is the great love story of the work and with the incredibly charismatic Joseph Caley and Jenna Roberts we should have been swept off our feet and just weren’t. Despite the occasional nod at Ashton’s Dream this really didn’t seem to be Bintley cooking up a storm of movement so much as trapped in deadly detail. Perhaps some may find delight in its light meandering steps, but for me choreographically it felt 2 stars at best. Bintley is capable of much better.
Steps aside, what brings sparkle to this production is the designs of Rae Smith – she of War Horse fame and who earlier designed Prince of the Pagodas for Bintley. The proscenium arch is dressed as if we are looking through a view-port onto the action. And action is what we get with fantastically conceived storms including some wonderful silk flying to create monumental waves – they make Basil Twist’s efforts in Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale look very humdrum. Finn Caldwell and Toby Olie are responsible for this and some delightful puppetry. Ariel (Mathias Dingman) also gets a terrific costume – a cross between Raven Girl and Edward Scissorhands. But then in most scenes Rae Smith and the others give you reason to go “ahhh” at the quality of design. Tempest also has custom music by Sally Beamish. It fits like a glove, as it should, but like the choreography it seems to get bogged down in detail and I can’t really recall any big tunes stirring me up.
In a nutshell Bintley’s Tempest is a visual triumph but feels slight choreographically and you’d be well advised to mug up on the story before seeing it. At a time when the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Northern Ballet are using new choreographers to push narrative ballet forward (if not always successfully, I know), Tempest doesn’t seem the greatest of advertisements for Birmingham’s traditional approach.