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Birmingham Royal Ballet

'Serenade,' 'Enigma Variations,' and 'Still Life at the Penguin Café'

by Stuart Sweeney

14th April 2009 -- London Coliseum

It was good to see this Birmingham Royal Ballet mixed bill at the Coliseum.  But it's usually good to see dance at the Coli, as the sight-lines are excellent and it vies with Sadler's Wells as the best venue for dance in London.  If only the Royal Ballet could perform there, as The Royal Opera House is entirely the wrong shape for ballet – the designers intended it as a place to be seen rather than to see.

The current BRB programme has three 20th Century ballets in marked contrast.  The five-stop tour stretched from Sunderland in the North-East to Plymouth in the South-West and for many audiences it may well have been the first time they had seen Balanchine's ravishing “Serenade” on-stage.  But for London, this was a brave move by the company, as we have seen some of the most prestigious companies in the world perform the work here.  The opening ensemble sections provided much pleasure as the corps essayed the ever-changing patterns with fine synchronisation.  And there was more enjoyment to be had from some of the individual performances: Momoko Hirota's exuberant, quick steps and the sensual elegance of César Morales.  However, at the heart of the ballet is the role of the “late girl”, and Elisha Willis was merely competent, with little beauty in her movement and a stiff back, perhaps from nerves in the largest theatre in London.  A shame, as this resulted in an enjoyable performance, rather than a great one.

BRB has made Ashton's “Enigma Variations” a signature work and as always there was much to savour in this series of vignettes depicting Elgar's friends; the helpful programme notes mentioned that the composer's daughter told Ashton that “they were exactly like that”.  The ballet celebrates friendship, especially in the relation between the composer and A.J. Jaeger, his publisher, who sustains the melancholy genius through a difficult period.  Elgar's marriage is portrayed without a hint of sentimentality and shows a certain distance between the couple, perhaps stemming from the composer's doubts about his career.  Victoria Marr as his wife conveys her deep love and makes the most of her steps.   And then there is the humour and exuberance of several of the male friends –  Robert Parker enjoys himself as the brusque Arthur Troyte Griffith.  This is a case where a happy ending doesn't spoil the show when Elgar receives a telegram from Hans Richter agreeing to conduct the Variations.

“'Still Life' at the Penguin Café”, with a, by turns, playful and moving minimalist score by Simon Jeffes, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and David Bintley's ballet makes telling points about endangered species ranging from species of flea and zebra through to a rain forest family.  Some of it works very well: Chi Cao brilliantly articulates the dance for the Southern Cape Zebra, combining distinctive, proud movement, ranged against a group of socialites dressed to the nines in zebra garb who care nothing for the animal's death; Carol-Anne Miller as the Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk Flea skips happily about with a team of Morris Men – Bintley was, I believe, a member of the Royal Ballet School Morris dance group; the costumes and sets are delightful.  Not all the choreography works, however, especially the Texan Kangaroo Rat, a drab and uneventful solo – even the dancer looked bored.  Overall, the ballet probably looked more radical 20 years ago than it does now, but there is still plenty of fun to be had.  For “Penguin” and throughout the evening, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (despite the title, BRB's in-house orchestra) played to the high standard we have to come to expect from what many consider the UK's foremost ballet orchestra.


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