Birmingham Royal Ballet
Themes and Variations, Enigma Variations, The King Dances
London, Sadler’s Wells
16 October 2015
Gallery of Themes and Variations and Enigma Variations pictures by Dave Morgan
There are glittering ballerinas galore in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest triple bill, but it’s the danseur who takes centre stage. The programme’s headline act is David Bintley’s The King Dances, a dazzling all-male (bar a fabulous turn by Yijing Zhang) homage to ballet’s founding father, King Louis XIV, aka Le Roi Soleil.
Louis’ nickname arose following his role as Apollo, the sun god, in the 1653 production Le Ballet de la Nuit, a twelve-hour spectacle that set in motion the king’s lifelong passion for dance. Bintley’s piece, which premiered this summer, takes its cue from this historic production, blending modern choreography with seventeenth-century court imagery to highlight Louis’ love for ballet and his lingering influence on the establishment today.
The 38-minute work is divided into four ‘watches’ that take us from dusk through to sunrise. The first sees a quartet of messieurs perform a ceremony in anticipation of Tyrone Singleton’s La Nuit – a menacing manifestation of night-time, and the most robust of his three roles (he later returns as Satan and then Cardinal Mazarin, the king’s ruthless chief minister). As darkness falls, a parade of divertissements usher in the second watch, culminating in a captivating duet between William Bracewell’s dignified Le Roi and Zhang’s serene La Lune. The third watch depicts a flashy, grotesque nightmare sequence, the fourth the arrival of daybreak and with it the sun king in all his gilded glory.
Bintley sensibly opts to allude to the ceremony of French court dance rather than subjecting us to a literal rendering. His choreography intersperses core elements of the aristocratic style – processional walks, repetitive sequences, elaborate spatial patterns, upright postures – with classical leaps and turns, many with modern flourishes. The storytelling is not quite as neatly handled: the piece darts erratically between abstract and concrete narrative, making it difficult to follow the action without studying the programme notes for each scene. At the production’s heart, however, is a clearly-conceived motif: the celebration of the male form in all its incarnations – commanding, virile, gallant, sensitive.
The ballet’s self-aware sense of pomp is fun, as are its elaborate props and costumes: there are fire-lit torches, silken wigs, glinting candelabras, demonic masks. These theatrics occasionally fall on the silly side of camp – see Singleton’s Satan, which screams discount Halloween store – but are on the whole entertaining and cleverly imagined, not least Bracewell’s imperious entrance as Le Roi Soleil in the final scene. He emerges from the dark in blinding gold garb, his loud costume and cocksure manner a brilliant embodiment – and affectionate mockery, it seems to me – of the grandiose, synonymous with Versailles and the baroque era.
George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations – a 1947 tribute to the golden age of imperial ballet training in St Petersburg, and this bill’s opener – proved a far less flashy, though equally entertaining, piece in BRB’s hands. The demanding ballet is practically a litmus test for technical virtuosity, what with its tricky footwork and complicated formations; happily, the 28-strong cast rose to the challenge, most notably Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley, who took on the notoriously difficult principal couple role. The former fired off quick-fire turns with unwavering precision, which the latter matched with dexterous leaps and a commanding posture. There were a few unwieldy bourres among the corps, but on the whole they demonstrated a high level of technique and brought a welcome sense of warmth to the neat, stately choreography.
Rounding off the programme is Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations, a sepia-tinted snapshot of composer Edward Elgar’s closest friends and family. Elgar’s intelligent score and BRB’s ornate set – a pastoral indoor/outdoor arrangement featuring giant arching trees – buoy the ballet, first performed in 1968, but this version is let down by flimsy characterisations that reduce charming eccentricities to screwball antics. A notable exception is Samara Downs’ take on The Lady (Elgar’s wife), full-bodied and stirringly rendered. Downs looked every inch the Ashtonian ballerina here, thanks in large part to her expressive face and willowy arms sheathed in gossamer.