Birmingham Royal Ballet – Arcadia (premiere), Wink – Cheltenham

Céline Gittens as Selene and Brandon Lawrence as Pan in <I>Arcadia</I>.<br />© Ty Singleton. (Click image for larger version)
Céline Gittens as Selene and Brandon Lawrence as Pan in Arcadia.
© Ty Singleton. (Click image for larger version)

Birmingham Royal Ballet
Arcadia, Wink, (The Moor’s Pavane)

Cheltenham, Everyman Theatre
5 May 2017

It’s late spring and once again BRB have split into two and are touring smaller theatres around the UK with mixed bills. None of the major UK companies does this as regularly (or at all, in some cases) and it’s a great, great, shame. The South tour is particularly interesting this year because it features a new piece by Ruth Brill, a first artist within the company, and this is her first major commission. I rather liked her Matryoshka, which toured 2 years ago and showed Brill as a choreographer looking to please and amuse the audience. There was clarity that you don’t often see in young choreographers; that said, it was only 10 minutes long. 25 or 30 minutes is a very different length of time to keep an audience’s attention no matter how good the dancers.

Brandon Lawrence in <I>Arcadia</I> poster image.<br />© Richard Battye, BRB. (Click image for larger version)
Brandon Lawrence in Arcadia poster image.
© Richard Battye, BRB. (Click image for larger version)

Brill’s Arcadia again marks her out – it’s ambitious in looking to tell a clear classical story in just 24 minutes. It’s about Pan – half man, half animal, the god of Arcadia – and his transformation from self-centred cad to Mr Nice Guy (brought about by a dalliance with the goddess of the moon, Selene) and with it “…the emergence of a more loving and united society.” Spread over several distinct scenes and with a cast of 11, there is a lot going on – but essentially it’s as ‘easy listening’ as narratives go.

Céline Gittens as Selene and Brandon Lawrence as Pan in Arcadia.© Ty Singleton. (Click image for larger version)
Céline Gittens as Selene and Brandon Lawrence as Pan in Arcadia.
© Ty Singleton. (Click image for larger version)

Despite the great casting, notably with Brandon Lawrence in the lead and Celine Gittens as Selene, two things gave me pause for thought, come the end. The custom score by saxophonist and composer John Harle, with its loud approach and mix of jazz, middle eastern and Klezmer airs, is not such an easy listen and seems rather at odds with the story (in parts anyway) and the pastoral ideal of Arcadia. Apparently Harle’s original version of Arcadia was suggested to Brill by BRB’s director David Bintley and perhaps he thought it would kick off in turn an interesting and different ballet response. I don’t think it did, which is my second observation – Brill uses traditional ballet steps in profusion, but I was hoping for them to get more under the skin of the characters and show those characters. But Brill does show how to fill a stage with classical steps and ends on a high with all in Arcadia giving us an exuberantly cheerful knees-up – those who like the second act of Wheeldon’s Winter’s Tale (for the Royal Ballet), might well be fired by this. Her choice of designer, Atena Ameri, also works well, particularly the stylised foliage set design and Pan’s wig/head-dressing. All up, Arcadia is no disgrace (the big worry with a first commission) but I didn’t feel the spontaneity of youthful movement zeal and questioning in this piece – more somebody getting to grips with tradition and juggling lots of ballet creatives in the manner of the boss. Arcadia is shown in a slightly enlarged version next month in Birmingham and in London next November – be interesting to see what impact the changes have.

Brandon Lawrence in Wink.© Caroline Holden. (Click image for larger version)
Brandon Lawrence in Wink.
© Caroline Holden. (Click image for larger version)

The other works on the Cheltenham bill were Jessica Lang’s Wink, which opened the night and set the standard, and José Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, which some admire and I don’t – see my earlier review, and Jann Parry’s much more encouraging thoughts. I saw Lang’s Wink in its premiere run last year and was immediately smitten by her ruminations on 6 Shakespeare sonnets – numbers 43, 30, 64, 40 and 71 for those interested. Lang’s piece (unlike Brill’s) was greatly helped by her commissioned score from Jakub Ciupinski with strongly atmospheric strings and a minimalist drive when needed. She makes her dancers look dramatically good, but also brings contemporary flair to the movement (Lang danced in Twyla Tharp’s company). The company have really settled into Wink and I got a winning cast led out by Brandon Lawrence and Delia Mathews. Every time I see Lawrence he just gets better and better – tall, but now in full control of his limbs, he is beautifully lyrical and yet strong and with a great jump. He really is world class in material like this and I look forward to seeing him in the major ballet roles. It comes as a surprise to see he is still only listed as a soloist.

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