I haven’t been to the Theatre Royal in Nottingham before and pleased I did. Good modern social space, but the interior is traditional, right down to its Victorian finger tips in faded blue and gold. It has just under 1200 comfortable seats and good sight lines where I was downstairs, but my, what a rake the stage has – not easy for the dancers. But this is the time of year when Birmingham Royal Ballet split into two and dance in often smaller venues with a wide variety of stages and other vagaries. I was there to see the Northern BRB tour – I’ve seen all the works before and really like them when they are performed well.
The show opened with Frederick Ashton’s Les Rendezvous – full of joyful classical movement as young things caper around a park trying to impress and cop off with other young things. From 1933, it’s one of the earliest examples of British-created ballet and clearly marked Ashton as one to follow. It was led out by Elisha Willis and Chi Cao – senior dancers both – but looking radiant and youthful as they effortlessly reeled off the difficult movement, if the rake caught out Cao on one finishing section. The only problem with Les Rendezvous is Anthony Ward’s wretched backcloth which seems so at odds with his handsome (but loud) costume designs – all from 2000. Sarasota Ballet have some recreations of the original William Chappell designs and it would be mighty good to see those in the UK.
Rendezvous is 21 minutes of classical movement perfection, but Alexander Whitley comes surprisingly close to besting it with his 20-minute more modern take on ballet – ‘Kin.‘ A great commission from 2014, only the insistence of including a silly full stop in the title rather jars – we really should be through all that silly name play B*||*kCs by now. Dancer injuries meant that the first and second casts couldn’t perform and so we got a lead pairing I’d not seen before – Elisha Willis and Jo Caley. Although it’s a pairing, the pressure is really on the lead girl who opens the work with a long, spellbinding solo and it was fascinating seeing Willis get her legs and arms around its modern ways. No problem really, and good to see a different side of a dancer I so often associate with BRB’s dramatic works. That really came to the fore in the duet, an intense sultry affair, but not at all smutty. Serious togetherness. Whitley as a dancer started with BRB before moving into contemporary dance and his choreography here is very ballet-driven. If you set aside the modern Phil Kline music, you see a lot of tradition and MacMillanesque partnering. But that’s when they are on their feet: from his contemporary side there is a lot of work on the floor and the fusing of the two and transitions are really clever. ‘Kin.‘ also has good-looking and understated tunic costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant – they hang and move beautifully. I hope Whitley does more with BRB and ballet dancers in general.
Last up was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, to Scott Joplin ragtime tunes and in the wacky original one-piece designs of Ian Spurling. It’s 40 years old and fresh and bright as ever. There’s something bound to please you in its 11 songs and for me that was the Alaskan Rag of Yijing Zhang and Tzu-Chao Chou, or the small man and tall girl routine. Devilishly hard to make all the humour work, they delivered it with great panache. But I also have to offer major praise to Brandon Lawrence (for Friday Night) – always tall but now with huge power and correspondingly huge jumps. Just 4 years out of school but really marking his card in a soloist role. One to watch.