Birmingham Royal Ballet – E=mc2, Tombeaux, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café – London

Birmingham Royal Ballet in <I>'Still Life' at the Penguin Café</I>.<br />© Roy Smiljanic. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café.
© Roy Smiljanic. (Click image for larger version)

Birmingham Royal Ballet
E=mc2, Tombeaux, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café

London, Sadler’s Wells
15 October 2013

First nights at Sadler’s often run a little longer than advertised and have the odd technical glitch but this was exceptional. A tense David Bintley, Birmingham’s Director, appeared before the curtain after a 15-minute delay to the start . He explained this had been caused by a fire in the rig above the stage earlier in the day. The result was a struggle to get the computers to control the bars that control the scenery.   So there was a strong chance that the evening might be interrupted or not all works might look quite as they were intended.

In the event we got through the evening relatively smoothly, though the late running meant a few people left before the final piece.  The company seemed a little tentative in the opening piece, E=mc2.  But they soon moved up a gear, finishing the evening in confident style.

The programme consists of three works, all by Bintley, from different stages of his career.  It’s unusual these days to get a triple bill concentrating on one choreographer.  What the programme showed was that, unlike most of other ballet choreographers in Britain today, his work isn’t primarily about the pas de deux. With, say, Wheeldon or Scarlett you feel the pas de deux is absolutely central to what they do: the choreographer seems to work outwards from the duet to create the whole piece.  The corps is not their primary concern.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in E=mc2.© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in E=mc2.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

But Bintley’s heart is really in ensemble work. He does of course make pas de deux, for example in the opening section of E=mc2, but you sense that wasn’t the burning reason for making the work. He is much happier employed in marshalling massed groupings of dancers, or of making a series of vignettes to show off  the company as a whole rather than just concentrating on a star couple. Even in Tombeaux, where there is a central pas de deux, he is equally as interested in the supporting four male soloists and the patterns for the corps.

E=mc2 was made in 2009 and is set to music by Matthew Hindson. It’s new to me although it has toured before. It  is in four sections, three corresponding to the constituent parts  of the famous equation ,  energy, mass, and  celeritas (speed), with a section entitled the Manhattan Project inserted as the third, to remind us of one of the consequences that ensued from mastering it.  The work feels too long at 40 minutes, but the delay in starting didn’t help.  Mass, the second section, seemed the most successful part. It was lit by Peter Mumford so that the dancers glowed like amber out of a dark background. This was slower and more reflective after the whiz bang of the opening energy section.  Bintley here uses three groups each of two men and one woman, for complex partnering and high lifts reminiscent of Tetley, and for sculptural groupings of massed bodies.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Tombeaux.© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in Tombeaux.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

Tombeaux is the best-constructed work on the program, and one that feels exactly the right length.  It is the most resolutely classical piece of the evening. It was made in 1993 when Bintley was about to leave the Royal Ballet in frustration at his career there and is intended to embody qualities of the English ballet style he thought was being eroded.  It is set to Walton’s variations on a theme by Hindemith.  The structure recalls Ashton’s Scènes de ballet with its leading couple, four male soloists and female corps, and like that work Bintley delights in arranging the corps in contrasted poses, to show them off from every angle. This enables us to further admire the designs by Jasper Conran. The tutus for the corps are particularly lovely, black shading to blue like the petals of a flower.

Momoko Hirata had a fine commanding presence as the female lead, precise and contained, and her partner, Joseph Caley, managed the striking and surprising upside-down lifts very well. The four male soloists (Bracewell, Campbell, Monteith, Till) were commendably in unison in their jumps.

‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café was made by Bintley in 1988, and has long been a favourite with audiences.  The music is from the Penguin Café Orchestra. It’s a series of tuneful melodies which Bintley matches with brief scenes of endangered species re-imagined in different guises. Hence the penguin–like Great Auk is a cocktail waiter at a glamorous 1930s style party. The Utah Long Horned Ram features in a Fred-and-Ginger-style number.   It is funny (particularly the morris dancing flea) and charming and mostly falls on the right side of twee, though the rainforest couple now seem sentimentalised.  The most impressive section is for the Southern Cape Zebras where Bintley gives us a corps of disdainfully chic women in zebra print dresses and high heels ignoring the expiring beast. The cast go at it with enthusiasm and looked like they had finally relaxed and were having some fun.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café.© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

The Royal Ballet Sinfonia is always one of the big plus points for BRB performances.  Here, conducted by Paul Murphy they coped admirably with the wide variety of music on the programme.

Bintley began by managing our expectations carefully, and promised to buy the entire audience a drink in the Shakespeare’s Head if the entire evening went off without a hitch. It all went much better than his forebodings.  I wonder if anyone turned up at the pub to claim their pint?

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