David Bintley’s farewell to Birmingham Royal Ballet, after 25 years as its artistic director, comes in two parts. First up, a showcase of female choreographic talent. Clumsy brackets aside, [Un]leashed was, overall, invigorating; a demonstration of the company’s healthy enthusiasm for innovation and playing with the form, which hopefully will continue under Carlos Acosta.
Lyric Pieces, created in 2012, is the American choreographer Jessica Lang’s interpretation of ten movements from Grieg’s collection of short piano pieces of the same name. Formally elegant, gently flowing and wistfully romantic, these miniatures played with combinations of eight dancers dressed in plain greys and a set comprised of black concertina paper elements, which were constantly manipulated by the dancers into fans, screens, arches and blocks. In both the music and dance, folk elements were stitched lightly into the classicism – there was a sense of airy bucolic fantasy and the odd dash of playfulness, such as Brandon Lawrence and Tzu-Chao Chou’s cheery swimming gestures in their Norwegian Melody duet, the four male dancers’ heroic posing at the end of their Norwegian Dance, and the galloping steps of March of the Trolls.
A little more variety in its emotional pitch wouldn’t have gone amiss – but the stand-out Phantom duet, danced by Lawrence and Celine Gittens, with its ravishing shaping, lush rapport and golden lighting, was enough to spin you off into raptures.
The pace was radically altered for Sense of Time, a new work by the Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman, commissioned as part of the Ballet Now programme. Modern life and urban angst were the consuming preoccupations – what we give time to, why we never feel we have enough time. The stage was dominated by a rotating wall of suitcases; simultaneously a reference to journeys, a turning clock hand, a barrier to connections, and a force moving the dancers round the stage. There was a clever sequence about our smartphone obsession, a lot of big city bustle, and a general frenetic and disquieting pile-up of movement – all propelled by Gabriel Prokofiev’s score, which mixed big, clashing orchestral heft with manipulated found sound, electronic bursts and disturbing dissonance.
And then a quiet oasis – Gittens and Lawrence again, as a flirty couple luxuriating in their time together. Their duet was filled with innovatively linked limbs and gently intimate gestures – the time theme echoed, for instance, in Lawrence resting his leg on Gittens’s bent back as she moved round him. Quite what the dancer walking stage left to right wearing an illuminated suitcase on his head was meant to represent defeated me, though.
To add Ruth Brill’s Peter and the Wolf to this mix certainly showed the breadth of BRB’s repertoire – but felt like an odd choice for an evening triple bill. It transplanted the Prokofiev children’s tale to an urban setting of scaffolding, basketball hoops, wailing sirens and hoodies. All very Kate Prince and “down with the kids” – but not especially illuminating. The simple story was told in triplicate through the music, the dance and a narration by Hollie McNish, which also felt a bit excessive. The whole thing ran out of oomph at the end. However, Chou’s Bird, in dazzling blue bodysuit, soared, swooped and fluttered with delightful exuberance, Brooke Ray’s Duck displayed an appealing insouciance and a winning shoulder shimmy (before meeting her sad end), Samara Downs’s Cat was convincingly haughty and Laura Day packed plenty of punch into her Peter.