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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Pomp and Circumstances'

by Cerise Andrews

April 9, 2009 -- Birmingham Hippodrome

Recession and classical dance are two concepts that should never meet. And let’s hope they never have to. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Pomp and Circumstances programme offered a sumptuous diversion from reality, a velvet-curtained history-sated world view that it is more important than ever to return to, lest all sense of human dignity be lost amongst the sense of pending deprivation.

BRB’s Spring 2009 triple bill programme was undeniably designed as a crowd-pleaser of Balanchine’s “Serenade” (1935), Ashton’s “Enigma Variations” (1968) and Bintley’s “Still Life at the Penguin Café” (1988); Birmingham’s loyal audiences know what they like and like what they know. Posters for the show depicting Penguin Cafe’s Brazilian Woolly Monkey character in striped trousers and gold top hat have been prominently on display throughout the streets for months; a visible proclamation that BRB will be partying on long after the last hurrah.

Ice-cool, stayed, precise, elongated and pictorial; pale blue could be the only colour for the set and costumes of “Serenade,” picking out the heavily structured snowflake-like nature of Tchaikovsky, rather than the richness and fanfares. The ensemble erupted with subdued passion and there were many dancers here who I would have happily seen in the subsequent short solos or duets (Yvette Knight, Dusty Button, Deila Matthews for example). 

Elisha Willis was brought to the forefront and completely held together the necessary geometric and geographical precision of the Balanchine aesthetic, but mastered more of the precision than the frosty passion; we weren’t sure for a few seconds whether the loosened hair mid-scene was due to a faulty bun net or an expression of the choreography, whilst her partner Cesar Morales in darker blue seemed to blend into the blue-washed background.  Matthew Lawrence delivered the later partnerwork with Elisha Willis, Momoko Hirata and Nao Sakuma danced with more fitting stylistic aplomb.

“Enigma Variations” is a gathering of friends, a series of portraits capturing the eloquence of the Victorian understated gesture, as well as the more exaggerated imagery of caricature. Each of Elgar’s friends was endearingly brought out through the choreography which incorporated their habitual eccentricities that referred to notable incidents which marked out their individualities.  Reverently enacted by the cast from start to finish, the conversation between Elgar (danced by Jonathon Payn) and his dear friend ‘Nimrod’ (A.J. Jaeger, danced by Valentin Olovyannikov) was most touchingly brought to life by its interpretation of considered pauses and animated exchanges. Although both Ashton’s and Elgar’s works – true to their historical eras (1968 and 1898 respectively) – promoted female characters as ‘romantic’ and largely delicate, ethereal and beautiful, Victoria Marr as Lady Elgar also brought out the strength and constancy in her supporting role, and it became clear through their tender duets that her influence on Elgar was more than purely decorative.

Despite the promises of the programme, it wasn’t until some way into “Penguin Café” that first night nerves were shed and that the party really started.  There was never a question that this piece would be enjoyed by the audience, even cherished as a modern masterpiece by some.  The wild costumes and tap-along melodies of the work are contradictory; Bintley’s work is not intended as an outright pantomime.  There is an edge to the ebb and flow of delirium; animals dance amongst humans and in the end ask which of us is more ‘civilised’? 

In “Penguin Café,” it is not the lion, but the Southern Cape Zebra who is king of the jungle. Bintley’s choreography exquisitely captures fluidity, majesty and languid rhythmic equine muscularity; principal dancer Chi Cao becomes zebra to his core. A sense of outrage rises up straight from the heart when he is shot dead mid-step. The work builds up to its long-heralded wild party where people, animals and hybrids dance and mingle with feverish abandon. Revelry subsides with the onset of a rainstorm which is perhaps a symbol of something more sinister, and closes with confused scurry towards a silhouetted Arc.

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