Birmingham Royal Ballet
Coppelia: Birmingham Hippodrome, 8 (mat) June 2013
Lyric Pieces, pdd from Giselle, Don Quixote & Pavane, Pineapple Poll: Wycombe Swan, 21 May 2013
Blissed out was my feeling on the train back home after seeing BRB’s Coppelia at a Saturday matinee. David Lloyd, the great ballet fan who provided the personal financial muscle to make it happen, I hope is blissed out too at what he helped create 18 years ago and which requires no replacement or tinkering for at least another 18 years.
Coppelia is the work of Peter Wright and I can’t think of anybody whose classical productions I consistently like more. His versions of Giselle are favourites the world over but this is another Romantic ballet take on village life, if one with a happy ending and based on more believable characters with no fairies or princes. In it the path of Swanilda and Franz to love is temporally blocked by the arrival of Coppelia in the village, thought human but actually an automaton created, like several others, by Dr Coppelius. The first 2 comic acts acts are concerned with the uncovering of all this and love found again. The last act is about an excuse for a company knees-up, not in National Dances, the usual excuse, but the dedication of a new village bell and dances around the virtues of hard work, prayer and marriage. After the fun it’s a reminder of higher things – in a nice way.
The sets and costumes, by Peter Farmer, are well made and have a visually rich Victorian feel that sits well with the other company productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, also produced by Wright. Coppelia might be set in Eastern Europe but it seems quintessentially English right down to its fluffy, ruffled, knickers.
In terms of dancing there seemed no weak links when we saw it at the end of the run and everybody was commendably together. I particularly liked Delia Mathews’ Prayer: she excelled in such slow and difficult movement and the nine Call to Arms boys under Mathias Dingman – what luxury to see then all dance as one. Valentin Olovyannikov’s Dr Coppelius was also noteworthy, a relatively young soloist doing very well in a full-on character role usually given to older dancers.Maureya Lebowitz, a soloist, was the lead as Swanilda. I saw her dance Cinderella at Christmas and while aware she is being pushed and rated highly I didn’t easily see why – other than good, clear, technique. Well now I understand more – she is is small, tight, light and very nimble, but unveiled here was a feisty actress and delightfully musical dancer. Her Franz was principal Jo(seph) Caley, 8 years in the company and starting to lose some of that fresh-out-of-school look. Regardless of age this is a great role for his still-boyish charm and twinkling roving eye. They make a good couple, well-matched for height and temperament and do the steps appropriate justice. They are both stage magnets too – no ignoring them and seeing what the rest of the stage is up to.
The performance was also noteworthy for being conducted by James Ham for the first time – indeed his first time of taking the baton for an entire evening of ballet anywhere. BRB won a BBC Performing Arts Fund Music Fellowship award back in March 2013 specifically to help grow a new conductor and Ham is the lucky first recipient of their care and attention. The hope is to do more to train ballet conductors over the coming years. So how did Ham get on? Pretty fine I’d say. Things were perhaps a little slow at times but that’s by far the best place to be at this stage in conducting and there was lots of evidence of good communication between the pit and the dancers. A good start and welcome to a dark musical art.
Earlier we caught one of the BRB mid-scale tour performances – when the company splits into two and covers generally smaller venues. We saw the Southern tour when it hit the Wycombe Swan with its broad stage and good trains enabling some London fans to see the company in the slightly more intimate surroundings of 900-1000 seats.
The Southern Tour rep choice was good in showing the breadth of the company, I thought. It started with last spring’s new Jessica Lang commission of Lyric Pieces to Grieg piano pieces. I have enthusiastically reviewed this twice already (May 2012, Oct 2012) and this viewing, from higher up, merely confirmed its gentle, breezy fluidity where the molo design concertina set elements are constantly on the move with the dancers. It’s a keeper.
We then had 3 pas de deux: Giselle, Don Quixote and part of MacMillan’s Pavane to Faure. It was the latter’s elegance and seemingly never-ending fluidity which really struck home the most. Beautifully restrained and sensitive performance from Delia Mathews (again) and Brandon Lawrence – both destined for higher things.
Rounding off the night was John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll – one of the jewels in BRB’s armoury of period pieces, in this case from 1951, when British ballet was starting to find its own unique way. At a time when a new generation of choreographers are rather struggling with narrative story-telling they could learn much from the 42-minute Poll which rapidly sets forth its narrative stall and puts dance to the fore rather than as some forgotten afterthought. Who can’t fall for a story of thwarted love on HMS Hot Cross Bun with a happy ending and Osbert Lancaster designs? There are lots of soloist roles but hard to ignore Maureya Lebowitz (again) as Poll and Iain Mackay as the dashing Captain Belaye. But a great company effort and one hopes that High Wycombe becomes a regular visit for them.
BRB seem on a performance roll at the moment which is perhaps the more remarkable as they are going through a restructuring and losing 11 people across the organisation, including some dancers taking early retirement. Hard, but prudent in difficult times and with less public money around. Their Birmingham season rounds out this week with Giselle and David Bintley’s take on a 19th century Romanticism and traditional staging. We look forward to seeing it.