Contrary to general belief, there is little glamour in the professional life of a dance critic. What there is, though, is a considerable amount of time spent confronting painfully unsuccessful attempts at making art or, at least, making something worth seeing. What makes one digest those endless stretches of choreographic drabness is the promise — sometimes the mirage — of rare moments of pure bliss. Which is what I experienced last week when, for the first time in years, I struck it lucky and sat through three superb performances in a row.
Signs that the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s brief run at Sadler’s Wells was going to be a hit were evident from the moment the curtain went up on its Autumn Glory programme. Created in 1937, Checkmate is Ninette de Valois’s foray into Expressionism. Not unlike Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table — the quintessential Expressionist work — this danced metaphor of love and death shows how British ballet, in the beginning, was experimenting with canons and formulae that did not belong to the classical idiom. It also shows de Valois’s unique theatrical genius, and the inventiveness of her choreographic vision, upon which much British choreography is built.
History did not impinge on the performance I saw, however. Neither did it on the other two milestones of British ballet in the programme: Frederick Ashton’s neoclassical masterwork Symphonic Variations (1946) and John Cranko’s spirited 1951 Pineapple Poll. In each instance, the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers engaged with the choreography via a unique combination of interpretative drive, stylistic understanding and technical accuracy.
The subtle intricacies of the choreography in Checkmate thus came to the fore, and Victoria Marr’s intense performance made the bloodstained rise of the Black Queen fully credible to a contemporary audience. Similarly, Ashton’s soft-toned take on neoclassicism could be savoured in Symphonic Variations, thanks to the intelligently refined dancing of artists such as Natasha Oughtred, Nao Sakuma, Elisha Willis, César Morales, Chi Cao and Joseph Caley, while Carol-Anne Millar, Robert Parker and the entire company stunned with their fast footwork and comic abilities in Pineapple Poll.
Two days later, one of the most captivating performances of Ashton’s La Fille Mal Gardée I have ever seen confirmed the company’s outstanding qualities. The cast, led by Nao Sakuma, Iain Mackay, Robert Gravenor and Michael O’Hare (the best Widow Simone in years), stood out for refined acting and technical skills, mesmerising viewers with that fast footwork that seems to have disappeared everywhere else in the ballet world. Ashton’s Fille is all about the beauty of youth. And an irresistible breath of youth is what Birmingham Royal Ballet provides viewers with.
The third memorable performance I saw last week was Dance by Lucinda Childs. This work, too, first seen in 1979, marked a significant chapter in the history of 20th-century theatre dance. And, like the titles above, this one also remains utterly vibrant and powerfully current. Childs, one of the pioneers of American postmodernism, juxtaposed real dancers with filmed ones, thus creating a hypnotically enthralling game of images. In a world dominated by computer-generated projections, the original black-and-white film now comes across as a bold choice adding a new layer to the dance itself. Yet the dance would not have had the success it had were it not for the breathtaking dancing of this company. The performance, in my view, was one of the highlights of this year’s masterly Dance Umbrella.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 29, 2011