Birmingham Royal Ballet
22 June: Three Short Story Ballets: Arcadia, Le Baiser de la fée, Pineapple Poll
28 June: Coppelia
Birmingham, Hippodrome & Bristol, Hippodrome
22 (mat), 28 June 2017
We are blessed in the UK with two world-class productions of Coppelia – Ronald Hynd’s cartoonish version for English National Ballet (currently touring to Japan) and Peter Wright’s more traditional version for Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) – just danced in Birmingham and Bristol and bringing a rosy warm feeling inside.
Wright is known internationally for his Giselle and Nutcracker productions – often considered masterful benchmarks of lucid storytelling with lots of space to dance. Birmingham’s Nutcracker, the best in the land for my money, is by Wright, and the omens were good when he created their Coppelia 22 years ago, shortly before retiring as director. That it’s still going strong is a testament to a great production of a happy ballet, especially one that might not be so well known as the obvious canon, but that people have come to love and embrace.
That the ballet is so loved is strange because Coppelia isn’t even a living person but a doll – the real story is about the love of Swanilda and Franz, a lad with a roving eye who stupidly falls for one of Dr Coppelius’ automatons, thinking it real. It all becomes rather surreal for a while as everybody ends up in Coppelius’s workshop, with the Doctor trying to gather Franz’s soul to bring Coppelia to life, as Swanilda tries to protect him and all the other automatons spring to life doing their robotic movements. Franz is saved, and it all ends in a great village party where true love is declared.
The Wright production explains it all clearly and at just the right pace. It’s clothed in impeccable designs by Peter Farmer (who sadly died earlier this year) – pure Rhineland scenery dominates the views from the village square where it all starts. I went to Bristol to catch the specific lead casting of Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton – who have now totally transitioned from being rising stars to fully risen Principals. They work well together, Celine picking up on the no-nonsense, “but I love the boy”, aspects of Swanilda and Tyrone on the laddish elements. He can’t stop himself from flirting when he sees a pretty girl but in his heart of hearts he knows there is only one girl for him. It’s a cliched story but they both sell it and make it deeply human, while dispatching the technical dance elements with ease. It’s a shame there are no pictures of them dancing together in Coppelia. Elsewhere we got the cameo role of the Gypsy danced with verve and flashing steel by Daria Stanciulescu – 3 years in the company and I hope more use is made of her. The only thing wrong at my show was a very sloppy ‘Call to Arms’ in the last act. Despite the 9 dancers including the very good Mathias Dingman, William Bracewell and Brandon Lawrence, it was like they hadn’t rehearsed and collectively had forgotten how to jump, let alone how to do it together. Third rate. But nothing was really going to stop us from basking in what BRB generally do best – traditional ballet told in the time-honoured way.
A week earlier, in Birmingham, I saw the “Three Short Story Ballets” bill and yet more tradition. If the ballets individually had some merit then as a collection I thought it rather disappointing in actuality – anybody looking for ballet’s future would have been better banging their head against a brick wall. That’s not to say there wasn’t something brand new – Ruth Brill’s Arcadia was sold as having its premiere during the Hippodrome run, but was largely the same as I saw when it was first unveiled in Cheltenham the month before – my review. It has a few more dancers in the group dances and the orchestra was larger, but really none of that, or my familiarity, made it ‘sing’ to me any more than earlier. Based on this Brill certainly shows talent as a straightforward classical choreographer but it is an apprentice piece as she gets to grips with telling a story. In this case it’s about the god Pan and, if rather slight, you do need to read the programme to understand what’s happening. John Harle’s saxophone-led score still feels at odds with the idea of Arcadia, but when we just have the saxophone alone, and Pan alone on stage, it really melds together. What I’d missed earlier is a strange false ending as all the dancers strut, then it goes to Pan doing a solo and everybody comes out again for more happiness – a real déjà vu experience. Perhaps it’s just me and the music not getting on. But I did get the opportunity to see William Bracewell dancing the lead role, one of the last before he leaves to join the Royal Ballet in London, and I was pleased at that. Such grace, poise, musicality and… height.
Rather more compelling was Michael Corder’s 2008 Le Baiser de la fée – Stravinsky helped much, as did the gorgeous designs of John Macfarlane. Although it’s 45 minutes long there is much plot to fit in and Corder’s use of the stage and Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting (= dark) means you really have to read the programme if you don’t know the plot already. It is certainly all there but much of it will disappear over your head if you don’t have your wits about you. There is no shortage of exhausting steps on show, but Corder really does deliver some fantastic sculptural arrangements of dancers and the ending is 24 carat gold stunning. Achingly beautiful and danced well by Celine Gittens and Mathias Dingman. Later in the year Scottish Ballet are re-staging Kenneth MacMillan’s 1960 production of Baiser – a rare treat to look forward to.
The best of the triple bill came last – John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll. Chuck away the programme and revel in the clarity and inventive fun of a 23-year-old Cranko, mining Gilbert and Sullivan, all delivered in playful Osbert Lancaster designs. The plot, revolving around HMS Hot Cross Bun, is pure bonkers, and the characters are all gross caricatures, but we instantly love them and see real life mirrored in them. Maureya Lebowitz made a good and determined Poll – I was impressed – and Yasuo Atsuji made a brave and fair stab at Captain Belaye. The steps were all there, that’s for sure. But this is a company piece and BRB are full of great character dancers and did our matinee proud. At such times you forget about the future and enjoy BRB for its love and reverential respect of the past.