Opposites Attract; Autumn Celebration!

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells

Last year I raved about Birmingham Royal Ballet, their artistic drive, their freshness, their impeccable artistic eclecticism and, not least, their superb dancing. It was with such memories that I went to Sadler’s Wells last week, only to leave both programmes with reservations and mixed feelings. Neither programme stood out for being particularly well constructed; one, titled Opposites Attract, lacked contrast and shadings, while the other suffered from excessive stylistic idiosyncrasy. David Bintley’s Take Five, to Dave Brubeck’s luscious jazz, strived to add sparkle, but did not succeed — surprisingly, one might add, given that it has all the right ingredients to be a success. But Bintley’s known and generally admired choreo-musical inventiveness failed to produce any memorable phrasing or ideas. The steps looked contrived and the overall impression was that of ballet dancers struggling to cope with the nuances of jazz body language.

His other work presented last week, the 2012 Faster, was not memorable either. There have been many sport-inspired ballets, starting with the 1897 Italian extravaganza Sport, which required a few hundred people on stage, including trapeze artists, cyclists, acrobats, horses and a dead tiger. Faster draws its inspiration from the recent Olympics, the spirit of which is rendered — not unlike the five-act Italian one — through choreographic numbers which refer to various disciplines. There are some good ideas, but there are also some exceedingly melodramatic moments — such as the scene with the injured athlete — and a great deal of predictable stuff, as in the case of the female swimmers. The audience seemed to love it, though, and there is no doubt that as long as Olympic fever lingers on this ballet will continue to elicit enthusiastic responses. But it does not add much to Bintley’s well-established choreographic reputation.

It also contrasted too stridently with the two other titles it was sandwiched between in the second programme, Autumn Celebration!, Frederick Ashton’s The Dream and Joe Layton’s The Grand Tour. The former, an unsinkable masterwork, added some fairy dust to the end of an evening which was not that magical, having started on the wrong foot with the revival of Layton’s creation. Set to tunes by Noël Coward, The Grand Tour is a slick look at the time when all the ‘in’ people gathered on the deck of prestigious ships and engaged in pure nothingness. As such it is mostly a gallery of choreographic portraits of characters that contemporary audiences might not have heard: Mary Pickford, Gertrude Stein, the even more mysterious silent movie star Theda Bara, etc. Each engages in one or two little numbers aimed at illustrating their psychological make-up. Nice, but only for a short while, after which the whole thing collapses badly, leaving the experienced ballet-goer wondering why this work has been revived.

Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces, the centrepiece of Opposites Attract, made me ask why this work had been created at all. Allegedly a tribute to Twyla Tharp, the series of dances set to Grieg’s piano pieces came across as a rather uninventive exercise on choreographic lyricism. It’s a pity that the lyricism in question was of the soppiest and most predictable kind, wrapped in long and annoyingly omnipresent concertina-like stretches of dark pleated paper, which the dancers used to frame themselves and their uninspired movements. The Opposites Attract bill concluded with Hans van Manen’s acclaimed Grosse Fuge, which showed what good composition is about. I only wish it had been danced with more conviction and stylistic accuracy, two qualities BRB dancers used to possess.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated