It’s a comfort that the creation of a new ballet inspired by French court entertainment can still happen in the amnesiac ballet country that Britain has become. The idea of making a modern-day meditation on the first ballet — Louis XIV’s 12-hour epic Le Ballet de la nuit (1653) — is as intellectual as Wayne McGregor’s roping in of cognitive science as source material. It faces many of the same traps when it comes to capturing that elusive necessity: theatricality. Only David Bintley could do this, deploying his artistic authority as the 20-year director of Birmingham Royal Ballet as any French despot would.
The scheme’s theatricality is innate. Le Ballet de la nuit starred the 14-year-old Louis. He had been king already for a decade and was prodigiously sure of his self-image as the sun struggling to be born through the turbulence of the night. In The King Dances Bintley produces a nice parallel metaphor. Louis brings the female principle of grace and soft-footed legato into a dance style defined by booted men in staccato jumps and stampings — this is a largely male ballet.
And it looks grand, on a small budget, thanks to designer Katrina Lindsay’s good eye. The night-black stage is lit by flaming torches held by an array of romantically handsome men with flowing hair and glimmering black frockcoats. As a corps they define a macho, militaristic surrounding for the lissome William Bracewell as a girlish Louis, trailing long blond ringlets, stepping high on his arched feet like Rudolf Nureyev, and turning slowly in classical arabesque as if to summon up that paragon of British classicism Anthony Dowell.
In theory it’s fine, but theory doesn’t make theatre. A glaring problem is Bintley’s choice of music, a new commission from Stephen Montague of brash unloveliness. The composer has had a tough set of demands to deal with, the plot being laid out in four picturesque or symbolic episodes, which are no doubt harder to compose for than emotional states. But still I’d hope for something less workaday than parking a stately 17th-century intrada in the entrance and then looping off into cartoonish musical effects. In this context one’s inevitably thinking of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty or Stravinsky’s Apollo, and Montague doesn’t belong anywhere near that company.
Nor, indeed, does Bintley, since for all the undoubted passion he feels for this enterprise, his choreography seems stilted — and not in a useful way. Louis’s dreamy pas de deux with the (female) moon — a homage, I imagined, to the birth of male-female ballet pas de deux — is weedy and repetitious, and the night demons waggle their hands at him like the mice that menace Clara in The Nutcracker. There is more than a hint, unhelpfully, of Nutcracker, as the older male figure who stands for Louis’s demonic enemy — both his adviser Cardinal Mazarin and ‘Le Nuit’ — is also a derivation of a Dr Drosselmeyer leading the child into enlightenment. It means the whole ballet remains on the level of the trivial.
By the time Bracewell parades on at the end, glittering in gold from the tip of his heel to the points of his sunray headdress, the poverty of the music and the timidity of the dancemaking have reduced the effect of the grand apotheosis to a silly cabaret. Of course, that particular costume must be a nightmare to light, and perhaps when it tours into London the critical last shot will be refocused and Bracewell will strut on with more chutzpah. I suppose nothing can be done about the music.
Paco Peña’s musical values in his periodic shows at Sadler’s Wells are dependably excellent in terms of flamenco, but it’s intriguing to see that at 72 he hasn’t simply sat about on his reassuring reputation as a guitarist and musical impresario. In Flamencura, unveiled last week, he’s boldly introduced a musical antagonist, inviting a jam session between flamenco and jazz with the hard-to-categorise singer Vimala Rowe. She herself has both London jazz and Indian interests, so this was something of a multi-berry jam.
What was so pleasing was that the two musical styles are only out for a fun date, they are not looking for marriage. While superficially jazz’s improvisatory riffs seem similar to the long vocal melismas of flamenco — and they have the instrumental textures in common — the rhythms are incompatible. So to see three flamenco dancers suited and booted like city commuters cracking out a sombre, syncopated rhythm while Rowe unleashed her gospel soul was fresh, stimulating, and all the more piquant for being not made to last. The integrity of the date depended on the huge musicality of the performers, which is irreproachable — the magnificent Angel Muñoz in particular.