Birmingham Royal Ballet & Ballet Black
BRB, ★★★✰✰: A Brief Nostalgia, Nine Sinatra Songs
BB, ★★★★★: The Suit
London, Sadler’s Wells
29 October 2019
I start by saluting the senior management of Birmingham Royal Ballet for the innovative decision to incorporate into their autumn programme a work created on, and performed by, another company. It was an unusual (indeed, in my experience, unique) move but not a risky one, since the work in question – Cathy Marston’s The Suit for Ballet Black – was already a favourite with both critics and audiences alike having won the National Dance Award for Best Classical Choreography in 2018 (plus a performance award for its star, the likeable Brazilian dancer, José Alves). If a safe artistic choice, it was also a decision aimed at cross-fertilising the audiences for both companies and improve the diversity of the BRB cognoscenti.
The Suit rewards multiple viewings and it thoroughly merited the opportunity for the bigger platform of the Birmingham Hippodrome and here at Sadler’s Wells. Far from losing any intimacy in this larger venue its powerful impact expanded to fill the auditorium. In the lead roles of the cuckolded husband and his sorrowful spouse, Alves and Cira Robinson were scintillating, confirming and enhancing my view that they are amongst the most charismatic performers on the British ballet scene. That they dance superbly is a given but their dramatic performance was never less than captivating. Robinson’s journey in this brief one-act ballet is an emotional rollercoaster, from the erotic assimilation of lovemaking with her “fling” (Mthuthuzeli November) – even more impressive when performed on a “bed” of hard chair frames covered by a sheet – to the desperate attempts to win back her husband’s affection, which – when rejected – leads to the tragic and heartrending finale.
Credit also must go to the Ballet Black ensemble for the coordinated activity that makes this ballet work so well, particularly as the dance version of an opera chorus, silently observing, accusing and pleading. It is a measure of the work’s holism that having played a critical role in the narrative, November melts back into the “chorus” and at no time does this anonymity seem at odds with his earlier role as the lover.
Marston’s novel direction and emphatic, descriptive choreography, combined with Jane Heather’s clever and fluid designs, Philip Feeney’s music and the Midas touch of clarity in the dramaturgical contribution of Edward Kemp have integrated to create a mini-classic of our times – one that stands alongside the expressionist one-act works of Kenneth MacMillan from decades ago. It is that good.
I wasn’t so impressed by the pair of BRB works that enveloped The Suit like a mismatched vintage overcoat and white silk scarf. The former was a new work, A Brief Nostalgia, funded by the excellent Ballet Now programme, a joint initiative with Sadler’s Wells. It brought to attention a young choreographer, Jack Lister (still performing with Queensland Ballet in Australia) who clearly has a promising future as a maker of dance. His intuitive use of music (a first-ever theatrical score by Scottish composer, Tom Harrold), Thomas Mika’s simple set design of austere, angulated walls that are elevated midway through the ballet and strong film noir shadows (lighting designs by Alexander Berlage) shows a command of purposeful directorial integration. Lister’s choreography also had powerful sequences – a male duet and an impressive group dance mixing uniform and contrasting movements were highlights. There was, however, a surfeit of ideas some of which detracted from getting a handle on the thematic intent. Without reading the choreographer’s intentions, I had no idea of the work’s purpose other than the directional sign in the title towards evoking memories. The twelve dancers (six male/female couples) were arranged into many permutations with rapid changes of personnel, which augmented the feeling that there was too much quick-fire material to take in. On this first viewing, A Brief Nostalgia had a powerful opening visual impact that paled as the work progressed. Nonetheless, I have the feeling that it too will repay repeat experiences.
The programme concluded with the full suite of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, which are so often seen piecemeal as gala excerpts. Tharp’s conceit is that there are actually only eight Sinatra songs since the ubiquitous My Way is performed twice. It should be an easy route to elegance to combine the idea of old-fashioned nightclub ballroom with ballet, mixing Fred Astaire with Mikhail Baryshnikov, but I find that the choreography to the eight songs and one reprisal is a very mixed bag.
The duets open and close with beautiful numbers danced lyrically (Softly As I Leave You by Momoko Hirata and César Morales) and strongly (That’s Life by Delia Matthews and Tyrone Singleton). The middle number by Yiying Zhang and Tzu-Chao Chou to Frank’s Somethin’ Stupid duet with his daughter, Nancy, was suitably – shimmeringly – romantic but those in between these highlights featured such complex partnering and lifts that they are difficult to dance without seeming clumsy and the magic is lost. Far from seeing this as ballet enhancing the seductive thrill of ballroom, I found myself wishing I could see the Strictly professionals dancing real tango, waltz and jive to the same Sinatra songs.
So, on an evening of something new, something borrowed and something blue (well old blue eyes, at least), it was the borrowed jewel that shone by far the brightest.