Birmingham Royal Ballet opened International Dance Festival Birmingham (IDFB) 2014 and on the way to the theatre it was terrific to see posters up all over the city centre and people out leafleting. IDFB really puts a spotlight on the diversity of dance these days and lucky Birmingham to get such a large and concentrated hit over the 4 week duration, ending 25 May. I hope, over time, it grows to have Edinburgh Festival levels of recognition and impact – but just for DANCE.
BRB’s response to IDFB was to concentrate on new work by young choreographers and couple that to Frederick Ashton’s early work Façade. From 1931 it’s a gloriously daft and funny period piece, if one baulks a little at one of the characters being called “A Dago”. It’s a work you put on at an end-of-pier music hall show with various types of dance lovingly lampooned to William Walton music and John Armstrong cartoon designs – if you have never seen it think Pineapple Poll and La fille mal gardée. Some stand out performances, notably from Elisha Willis as the Polka girl you could all love, and Celine Gittens as the rather gullible and ever-happy Debutante, putty in the Dago’s hands. But most of all Kit Holder and Lewis Turner’s soft-shoe shuffle in the Popular Song section really captured the deadpan, blazer-and-boater syncopation brilliantly. Façade is a 20-minute object lesson in packing in characters and dance, leaving us all wanting a little bit more. A good end-of-show piece.
Opening the night was Kit Holder, this time wearing his choreographer’s hat with Quatrain, premiered 2 days earlier. It’s his biggest commission to date with a striking, forgive me, large coat-hanger mobile suspended towards the back of the stage and set to Piazzolla. A perennial choreographers’ favourite composer, he provides a lot of musical drive and texture, that can be formal or more intimate. For 4 strong couples, every pair has their moment in the sun, and then various other combinations – at 28 minutes it felt too long. But Holder asks a lot of his dancers’ classical technique and they generally come out well, if some of the sections in canon struggled to come off. Apprentice piece it may be but there was some classical invention here that picked up on the flavour of tango without parody and it’s a useful move forward for him.
Choreographically Alexander Whitley is a few years on from Holder and his Kin. was probably the best new thing I’ve seen BRB premiere since Bintley’s E=MC2 – which was 4½ years ago now. Whitley started his career at BRB, moved on to Rambert and has freelanced a lot in contemporary dance. To a doleful shimmering string score by Phil Kline, Jenna Roberts is the moody centre of attention. Although there is no overt story (excellent programme notes by Susan Turner) Roberts seems a Siren-like character, bursting with ‘look at me’ sassiness one minute and touchingly emotional the next. She opens Kin. with a long solo, pointe-shoeless like the other girls, but for a slow pdd with Jo Caley they go on and she garners towering strength from them. Whitley, and we, are still unpacking what he is about as a choreographer, but there is a loose, natural, freshness to what he does – he seems to go with the grain of dancers’ bodies rather than fight it in the search for new eye-candy movement. While Roberts made you go ‘Phew!’, Caley provided good support as did the 8 others – rising stars all. Like the Ashton this is a 20-minute piece that seems perfect length. So many 30 and 40-minute works seem too long these days and I’m starting to think that 20 should be the new 30 – at least where dance is concerned.