The autumn dance season is always a welcome opportunity to catch up with Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells. In the past couple of years the company has brought us well-rounded mixed bills, typically offering us a taste of ballets that are unique or rare in these shores. Last year BRB literally answered our prayers, bringing Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, a masterpiece that had not been staged in London since 2007, while the year before they had given us a glimpse of Twyla Tharp’s vibrant In the Upper Room.
This time the ballet we had been anticipating the most was David Bintley’s Faster. This new Olympics-inspired work had been unveiled as part of BRB’s “Summer Celebration” at the Hippodrome and, back in June, we had travelled to Birmingham to drop in on rehearsals and sneak a peek at the “big finish”. One of Bintley’s strengths as a choreographer is structuring patterns for the corps de ballet and here there is a superb moment, a crescendo-like marathon, where the entire company runs as if trying to reach the finishing line, kitted out in stylish day-glo sneakers and sportswear.
Making a ballet about Olympics and sports must be a difficult task – for instance: how to represent swimming in choreography? – but thanks to a combination of suggestive movement, clever costumes, atmospheric lighting and a brilliant new score by Matthew Hindson (who had also teamed up with Bintley for E=mc²), each discipline – from basketball to fencing, to synchronised swimming – is effectively portrayed. Bintley also sees the opportunity for emotional engagement with a wonderful pas de deux for Tyrone Singleton and Céline Gittens, representing how athletes can overcome obstacles like injury and focus on “mind over matter”.
The two other ballets on show at Sadler’s had also been staged as part of the company’s “Summer Celebration” bill: Joe Layton’s The Grand Tour and Ashton’s The Dream. As dance writer Graham Watts pointedly observes in his review for London Dance, The Grand Tour is a work that “could have been so much better, even in 1971″. The piece depicts movie and theatre stars from the thirties meeting on the deck of a cruise liner. With this revival, BRB was perhaps hoping to engage audiences who had been captivated by recent big screen retro successes like The Artist and Midnight in Paris but, as a dance comedy, the work never really sails. And even though Iain Mackay (as Douglas Fairbanks) did the best to channel his inner Jean Dujardin and Matthew Lawrence looked effortlessly cool as Noël Coward, it would take a lot more character development for The Grand Tour to retain interest as a “vintage glamour” piece.
We had been very curious to see how the company would tackle Ashton’s The Dream since Kris Kosaka’s report from Japan. This is a perfect piece for BRB, as again their sharp, excellent corps de ballet is completely at home. They also have in the fairylike Elisha Willis a “dream cast” Titania. Her Oberon, Joe Caley, was graceful and fleet (though I did wonder if some of Ashton’s fiendish steps had been slightly simplified in this staging) and James Barton was simply smashing as Puck. With 2 out of 3 works ticking the box, this was another welcome mixed bill. We look forward to the company’s next visit to London with Bintley’s Aladdin.