Birmingham Royal Ballet – Autumn delights: La fille mal gardée & The Nutcracker – London & Birmingham

From 2011 with Tom Rogers as King Rat in The Nutcracker.© Roy Smiljanic. (Click image for larger version)
From 2011 with Tom Rogers as King Rat in The Nutcracker.
© Roy Smiljanic. (Click image for larger version)

Birmingham Royal Ballet
London, Sadler’s Wells, 2 November: La fille mal gardée
Birmingham, Hippodrome, 23 November: The Nutcracker

It’s an important time for Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) – they will soon be announcing who their new Artistic Director is going to be after David Bintley, in post 25 years, steps down in July 2019. “I leave the future of British ballet in your hands”, Frederick Ashton, the illustrious Father of British ballet, told Bintley in his younger days, but Bintley has increasingly seemed not the future so much as a traditionalist, focused for the most part on creating his own narrative work for a largely established and appreciative audience of existing fans. At a time when most ballet companies are trying new things, with a variety of new choreographers, BRB has seemed rather disconnected from the zeitgeist.

Lately BRB announced, and is implementing, Ballet Now – it’s plans to do a series of new works with younger or not-so-well-known choreographers. That’s been welcome, but there are limits – Bintley would never have commissioned Akram Khan to do a Giselle (like English National Ballet famously has, and to great critical acclaim) and movers and shakers like Wayne McGregor, in demand by companies around the world, have not featured on his list as suitable choreographers for a ballet company.

In announcing its search for a new director the board has seemed to be picking up on the bigger picture and the search committee was composed of an encouragingly diverse mix of the great and the good. We will see – certainly BRB is a catch for somebody with its solid Arts Council funding, catalogue of crowd pleasers and great dancers poised to connect to the future as well as they connect to the past.

Behind the scenes there have been other changes underway after their Chief Exec left and the much respected Caroline Miller arrived as interim CEO last February. Miller was the dynamic and upbeat leader of Dance UK (now One Dance UK), the body that looks to represent and support the wider dance and ballet community, and she spearheaded many initiatives, most notably around dancer health and the effective lobbying of government with a solid and widely-respected dance manifesto, helping to galvanize dance-aware MPs into action. I chatted with Miller in the summer and you couldn’t wish for a more upbeat and entrepreneurial pair of hands – appreciative of what was there and also looking for how she could help make more of it. Miller is also welded into the wider and growing importance of Birmingham as a vital centre for UK dance, based around the new Birmingham Dance Hub initiative, DanceXchange (responsible for the biennial Birmingham International Dance Festival), and the important relationship with Birmingham Hippodrome as a producing house. Everybody seems to be talking and with a newly revitalised BRB I hope for great things from the company and Birmingham generally. If unrelated to BRB, one tangible initiative is the Hippodrome backing Rosie Kay’s new 10 Soldiers production, which takes Kay’s highly respected 5 Soldiers and gears it up for larger stages and bigger exposure – it premieres on the 21sr May 2019 and I can’t wait. I’m a HUGE supporter of getting dance innovation more equitably spread across the country rather than concentrated in London, and good to see such initiatives coming together. BRB is the largest company outside London and with its sister dance organisations can really help propel this all along. A talk with Miller is certainly an uplifting experience and the combination of new hands at the top of the company should really shake things up.

Karla Doorbar with the Mirliton in The Nutcracker.© Andrew Ross. (Click image for larger version)
Karla Doorbar with the Mirliton in The Nutcracker.
© Andrew Ross. (Click image for larger version)

What a long introduction and bit of context setting for a review – 500 words in and not mentioned what I saw at all! Having rather banged on about the need for BRB to renew, the two recent productions I’ve seen are from the past and long may they stay in the company repertoire. In the summer BRB revived Ashton’s La fille mal gardée, and brought it to London in October, where it sold out at the Wells. And in late November the company opened its Nutcracker season with the best large-scale production in the UK – and appropriately the Brum Hippodrome was packed to the gunnels.

I haven’t seen the BRB Nutcracker in Birmingham for three years but was determined to this year because the Birmingham Hippodrome is the only place you get the full experience. It was a present to the city of Birmingham when the company moved there (changing its name from Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet in the process) and its theatrical complexity is such that it just doesn’t readily tour. 28 years on from its premiere it still remains the large production benchmark in the UK. It’s by Peter Wright (then artistic director of BRB) and followed six years after he made a Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet in Covent Garden. The Birmingham production is rather more straightforward and easily grasped – a girl, a party, a mysterious magician, a wonderous dream featuring a fight, a terrific flight to a Land of Snow followed by much exotic dancing and then back to safe reality. Back in 2015, when the production reached its quarter century BRB did a press conference with Peter Wright looking back to the genesis of the project and I captured much of that in my review – worth a read.

The Birmingham production has great pace but above all it has the designs of John Macfarlane. BRB have launched an appeal to refurbish the costumes, and while they do look a little careworn, it still feels rich and a paragon of traditional theatre – you won’t find laser projections and overt high tech here. The best of it is the transformation scene and as the tree grows to preposterous dimensions, and the Rat King makes a triumphally scary entrance, it still brings a lump to my throat. No other production comes close to this magic.

Momoko Hirata and César Morales in <I>The Nutcracker</I>.<br />© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Momoko Hirata and César Morales in The Nutcracker.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

The opening night was led out by Momoko Hirata and César Morales as the Sugar Plum and her Prince. Hirata has a rather different approach to phrasing her steps, finding lots of time in the score to slow (and almost stop) the action and then speeding away – it’s rather beguiling. Morales was attentive and able, if offering not so much pulse-raising excitement. But Nutcracker is about the bigger picture and the work of many soloists and I particularly liked Delia Mathews’s sensuous Arabian dance and Celine Gittens’ radiantly bountiful Rose Fairy. Clara was the believable Karla Doorbar, threading it all together.

London readers can see a version of the production at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) between the 28th and 31st December. The costumes are the same but, being in the round and with no proscenium arch, the sets are vastly different and feature some stellar and clever projections. Last year the dancers looked fantastic let loose on the huge thrust stage, but for me it doesn’t quite have the full magic of a pilgrimage to Birmingham, if the RAH itself is such an enchanting space. Wright’s gift to Birmingham was very special indeed.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in La fille mal gardée, here with Momoko Hirata as Lise, Jonathan Payn as Thomas and Michael O’Hare as Widow Simone.© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in La fille mal gardée, here with Momoko Hirata as Lise, Jonathan Payn as Thomas and Michael O’Hare as Widow Simone.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

La fille mal gardée seemed in fine shape when the company recently brought it to the Wells. Like the Nutcracker it’s a simple tale, easily grasped. Lise, the daughter of Widow Simone, is in love with the young farming lad Colas, but the mother has other ideas for her when rich Thomas wants to unite the families by having the daughter wed his rather simple son Alain. True love wins of course. It’s a comic work littered with real-life observation and so neatly done one doesn’t question a thing. I doubt, though, if it would be created, as is, in these questioning days, and while it might be done without malice, we do all laugh at the antics and amusement to be had around a young man with learning difficulties.

Like the Nutcracker, fille mal gardée has stunning designs, this time by cartoonist Osbert Lancaster. And like the plot, the designs are both real and unreal and take you to another idyll. And for all its comedic fun Fille is really about love manifest as dance… and ribbons. It’s really impossible to to factually describe the brilliant ways that Ashton integrates ribbons into the plot without ruining it for those yet to come under its spell. But the mixing of steps and satin tugs your heartstrings and is utterly unique.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in La fille mal gardée, here with Momoko Hirata as Lise, James Barton as Alain and Mathias Dingman as Colas.© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Birmingham Royal Ballet in La fille mal gardée, here with Momoko Hirata as Lise, James Barton as Alain and Mathias Dingman as Colas.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

The Birmingham company are full of good dance actors and bring the story alive but the lead roles aren’t suited to all comers. I saw Samara Downs and Yasuo Atsuji and was glad I did – he makes the steps freely talk and she dances with feisty and generous attack. Their love is believable and hard to ask for more.

I look forward to the changes inevitably coming to BRB, but I can’t believe any new director will turn their back on such repertoire gems as fille and their Wright Nutcracker. Exciting times for the company that’s for sure and bravo to them for thrilling us with these two timeless classics.

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