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Ready to Start

by Emilia & Linda on October 20, 2010

Last week we attended Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s week-long season at Sadler’s Wells. They brought to London two different autumn bills: Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet and Pointes of View, with works by MacMillan, Balanchine and Twyla Tharp. Each Bag Lady caught up with one program.

Iain Mackay and Jenna Roberts in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: BRB, Roy Smiljanic ©

Linda on Romeo & Juliet:

Having seen Romeo and Juliet not long ago (The Royal Ballet performed it last spring) we were curious to see a staging designed for a touring company, as we knew this production used different sets and costumes from the famous ones by Nicholas Georgiadis, with a softer colour palette that evokes a Renaissance Verona. We also wanted to observe what the dancers make of the ballet’s dramatic and technical opportunities in a chamber-style production.

MacMillan supervised this staging in 1992 and commissioned new sets (less monumental though still atmospheric) from Paul Andrews. This provides for a more intimate experience of the ballet: the stage is closer to the audience and the ensemble scenes are less crowded. The cast was a perfect fit to the production, the full company committed and expressive in every role: from the star-crossed lovers to the secondary parts. I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of seeing first soloist Jenna Roberts on a leading role and to me it seemed as if she was born to dance Juliet. Light in step, bright attack and capable of a wide dramatic range, fully conveying to the audience a woman whose choices determine her fate.

Marion Tait as the Nurse and Jenna Roberts as Juliet in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Romeo and Juliet. Photo: BRB, Roy Smiljanic ©

Iain Mackay looked every inch the brooding Romeo. If technically I’ve seen sharper executions, his elegance matched Roberts’s Juliet very well and he was extremely moving in the tomb scene as he desperately clung to Juliet’s lifeless body. Robert Parker was a devilish Tybalt and Alexander Campbell a cheeky Mercutio; his sword fight with Parker so grueling and realistic that the townsfolk did not have to work very hard at acting shocked. Marion Tait was a stately Lady Capulet. Praise also for the Corps de Ballet who were as pristine in group dances as in acting their character parts.

The only odd notes were the bizarre costumes worn by the Mandolin dancers, which looked more DIY-Halloween than something Veronese entertainers might have worn. They should be rethought. Apart from this minor gripe BRB should be proud of a production that looks distinctively theirs.

Emilia on Pointes of View (Concerto, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, In the Upper Room):

BRB closed their season at Sadler’s Wells with a well-designed, versatile mixed bill.  Concerto showcases the Company in different MacMillan territory and is a perfect contrast to Romeo and Juliet: plotless, monochromatic and ideal for their fast and sharp Corps de Ballet. I was particularly impressed with Carol-Anne Millar who nailed those tricky turns in the third movement, injecting her solo with a good dose of ballerina authority.

Natasha Oughtred and Jamie Bond in Concerto. Photo: BRB ©

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue is a complete change of gear, from ballet to dance theatre. Created in the Thirties as part of Rodgers and Hart’s musical On Your Toes, it follows the adventures of a young American hoofer who joins a famous Russian ballet company. Before the curtains open a pompous Russian ballet star strolls along the proscenium. He talks to the audience and instructs a gunman to shoot the young hoofer (his rival) after he finishes his solo. There are subtle nods to Romantic classic Giselle as the young American (superbly acted and danced by Alexander Campbell) soon discovers the only way to stay alive is to carry on dancing. On top of that he has just seen his sweetheart (a vixen-like Ambra Vallo) get shot by gansters and is consumed with guilt and regret. All these balletic references made me curious about the complete On Your Toes, which sounds like “Balanchine meets Guys and Dolls” and was conceived as a parody to the famous tours of Ballets Russes.

Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room. Photo: BRB ©

Slaughter was followed by Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Set to Philip Glass’s rising score, some consider the piece to have “a touch of the sublime”, while its atmosphere can be migraine-inducing for others. Light, music and effects all combine to make the work pulsate. I left the theatre thinking of it as a sensorial experience and was delighted to see a bit of martial arts kata in Tharp’s interesting mix of styles. The cast was a dream team of BRB’s best. Robert Parker, Joseph Caley, Alexander Campbell, Elisha Willis and Carol-Anne Millar were the “dancers-in-trainers”, moving as if their lives also depended on dancing. Just as mesmerising were their counterparts in-ballet-shoes Chi Cao, Matthew Lawrence and blonde spintop Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, with their en pointe ladies Ambra Vallo, Gaylene Cummerfield and Natasha Oughtred. Together they rocked the room. Another season, another fab myth-busting triple bill in BRB’s ballet bag.


Birmingham Royal Ballet continues on tour at Theatre Royal Plymouth with Pointes of View (tonight) and Romeo and Juliet (21 – 23 Oct). Visit BRB’s official site for more information.

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{ 4 comments }

Jennifer Rowe October 21, 2010 at 7:53 pm

Could you not have reviewed these two programmes when they were in Birmingham at the start of this season?! With the Arts Council having received at 29% cut to their budget in yesterday’s spending review, funding to the arts will be slashed in the coming years and therefore need all the support they can get.
Companies such as BRB need all the support they can get to make up the funding deficit that they will suffer as a result of this, especially as they cannot count on the massive corporate sponsorship that Royal Ballet gets. As such, whilst it is wonderful to see such a positive review, it would be brilliant if reviews were done earlier in the season to encourage as many people as possible to get out and see these productions rather than waiting until they only have a couple of performances left for people to catch.

Emilia October 21, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Thanks for your comment. We agree BRB needs all the support they can get, they truly are a treasure of a ballet company. We would have loved to see them in Birmingham at the start of the season – and sometimes we do take day trips to see them (a number of our BRB reviews are about performances at the Hippodrome). Unfortunately not always possible for us to travel. But – we hope you will agree in turn – better late than never!

Chantal October 22, 2010 at 1:38 pm

@Jennifer: BRB actually received significant press coverage at the launch of this programme, which meant that, for example, Pointes of View only received one press review from its London shows.

The Birmingham premiere was covered by The Arts Desk, Observer, Daily Express, Birmingham Post, The Stage and the Daily Telegraph (source: http://www.brb.org.uk/6329.html). The only London review of Pointes of View was by Sanjoy Roy of The Guardian.

I agree with Emilia that is not always possible to travel out of town to catch every show (I would love to see Scottish Ballet on their current tour, but the cost of travel to the Highlands is prohibitive), however at least there were other reviews available to whet people’s appetites and to inform them about the two shows.

I am aware that a lot of work goes into producing a well-written review (eg research, editing, photos) which is why it can take between several days and several weeks for some reviews but which, like this one, are fully worth the wait.

There are links to the other reviews on the BRB link above if you have not yet had a chance to read them.

Paul Newton October 23, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I agree it is not practical for The Ballet Bag to provide comprehensive coverage of the regions. However, Jennifer makes some valid points and I would be very disappointed if her post is seen only as criticism of The Ballet Bag and not also as an expression of some very real concerns: BRB gets about 70% of its income from ACE and Birmingham City Council, and when there are many empty seats for mixed bills at Birmingham, including Pointes of View, one can be forgiven for being fearful of what the future holds.

The ArtsDesk published a preview of BRB’s 2010/11 season and also a guide to R&J listing forthcoming performances by RO, BRB and ENB. Problem is, whereas BRB’s season started on 22 September, these guides were not published until 10 October, i.e. after all of BRB’s performances at Birmingham and Sunderland (19 performances). That’s hardly helpful is it. The guides were clearly timed to coincide with BRB’s arrival at Sadler’s Wells. Is it really too much to ask for a season preview to be published before the season starts? Apparently yes.

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