Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum

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Last night W (“Parsingphase”) and I went to the London Coliseum to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” program, part of the Spring Dance at the London Coliseum series.

My interest in this was due to 1) really enjoying my previous viewings of this groups’ work (they are a strong notch above English National Ballet and, as near as I can tell, the second best ballet group in England) and 2) the pictures for the Penguin Cafe piece were really intriguing.

I was fascinated by the idea of a ballet featuring zebras. Really, how would it work? Would it be like Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds,” or would it be (shudder) more like the “Tales of Beatrix Potter?” It had a look of whimsy (tempered with high artistic skill) that I really appreciated – even though I realized in some eyes the whole thing could come off like a giant Furry fantasy ballet. (But, you know, perhaps best not to go down that path!)

I faffed and faffed about buying tickets, hoping I could get a half price deal and get seats on the floor, but the gods weren’t with me – the deal I saw was for Sylvia, and when I looked at ENO and Sadler’s Wells sites to figure out what seats were available, it in fact looked like it was nearly sold out! I decided that rather risking not going, it was best to get some sort of seat bought, and so I settled on £20 seats in the next to last row of the Coliseum’s upper balcony (aided pricewise by Sadler’s Well’s 20% multibuy discount – I bought seats for Northern Ballet at the same time to get that deal).

As it turns out this was not a bad decision – while the show certainly wasn’t sold out (at least in the balcony), it did NOT come up on the TKTS offerings for the day (though I note it’s there today). Perhaps our balcony seats were a bit warm, but the view was unobstructed, and other than the damage to my knees from the ridiculously narrow space between the edge of my seat and the back of the next chair (a problem for all but the last row of the second balcony), it was most decidedly worth £20, especially since all of the music was done live (yay!).

The first piece was Balanchine’s “Serenade,” which premiered in 1935 and was the first piece he choreographed on American ballerinas. It did show signs of age – some of the movements looked like they’d been lifted right from Martha Graham (right arm straight out Hi-YAH!), and a few of the group bits had a heavy feel of Busby Berkeley – but it was still such a pleasure to watch. Really, his 70 year old ballets look so much fresher than many choreographers’ works from the seventies and sixties. The bit with the five women knotting and unknotting themselves with each other seemed to have almost a mathematic quality to it, and the “menage a trois” scene (rather a more appropriate name that “pas de trois” given what appeared to be the subject matter) had real dramatic tension in it. I didn’t feel like the corps of BRB was as good in this piece as Pacific Northwest Ballet was when I saw them do it some years back – there’s just something about the discipline in the way they hold their arms, and the incredible strength of the women’s torsos, that wasn’t happening for BRB – but the power of Balanchine carried me through (and they were certainly good enough to make it work, just not 100%).

“Enigma Variations,” as choreographed by Frederick Ashton to the music of Elgar, summary: Ashton ain’t for me. I have seen several of his ballets and they just utterly failt to grab me. The program went on about his skill at capturing character through dance – well, he does, that’s great, but there’s more to ballet that just putting some characters on stage and having them “express” themselves. I want to see great movement, I want to be swept away and amazed, and cutesy vignettes (a la his “Tales of Beatrix Potter“) just don’t cut the mustard. Jerome Robinson was his contemporary and managed both the dance and the character, so it’s not like it’s something that wasn’t happening at the time or can’t be done. I did enjoy the pas de cinq (as it were) with the four townspeople dancing around the old man (David Morse, whom they’d imprisoned in a hoop), but I just wasn’t convinced in the least by this dance, which suffered immensely by being placed next to a Balanchine. I am going to either have to have someone seriously explain to me why Ashton is so great (and change my experience of watching him) or just give up on seeing his work altogether and write it off to just not getting English tastes in ballet.

I liked Julia Trevelyan Oman’s design – though, in some ways, the extremely detailed costuming and set rather weighed the piece down in the very way that Balanchine’s “leotard ballets” were utterly freed to just be dance by having nothing else to them but the dancers and the music. And, geez, maybe all of those years of watching PNB perform Balanchine have just informed my tastes in a way I can’t overcome anymore than I can warm up to feathered hair or bell bottom jeans. I like plotless dances in the same way I like vanilla ice cream, plain cheese pizzas, and undecorated sterling flatware – strip all of the nonsense away and you can really see what something is made of and what kind of quality it is.

Enough grousing. The final piece of the night, David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe,” choreographed to music of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, wound up the program in high style. I had great fears that it would be insufferably horrid, that it would get nauseatingly cutesy (due to having humans dressed as animals) or irritatingly preachy (with its underlying environmental message). Somehow, it avoided either of these big wide pitfalls and was both entertaining and fun to watch – with good music. Each of the pieces had an animal as its center, with dancing done in a particular style that the choreographer had taken a shine to – the Utah “Longhorn Ram” (rather a comic name as it was clearly a she-sheep rather than a ram, and a “bighorn” as “longhorns” are a type of cow!) with Angela Paul as a glamorous ’30s Hollywood starlet dancing with her tuxedoed (human) partners, the Texas Kangaroo Rat (Christopher Larsen) a yee-hawing country bumpkin, the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao per the Teenage Theatre Critic) a bit of a chanting tribal shaman dancing amidst fashion models.

I realized, while watching this, that it’s a horrible thing to have a dancer perform with a mask on. It reduces our ability to see what emotion they are experiencing, and while they should be able to express themselves quite competently with their bodies – well, as humans, we’re programmed to look for the face for clues to what’s going on in the head. And I began to wonder, as I watched the Texas Kangaroo Rat, if maybe having a mask on puts a dancer at a serious disadvantage, not just in terms of movement and weight, but in terms of their ability to connect with the audience. I felt like Mr. Larsen was maybe not feeling as “there” as he could of because of his own restriction in seeing the audience, as if perhaps wearing a mask made him feel like it was not really “him” performing the role, and that he didn’t need to give his all because he was just an anonymous body performing as an animal. At any rate, I was seeing a lack of fire and commitment in his movement, so ultimately this proved the most disappointing to me of the scenes.

This, however, was but a small twinge in the overall pleasure of “Still Life.” I’ll focus on my favorite bit, “The Ecstacy of Dancing Fleas,” starring a made-up species, the Humbolt’s Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. It started with an orange-clad dancer (Carol-Anne Millar) skipping on stage, being bouncy and fun, followed by a platoon of … wait for it … Morris Men. I kid you not. Never before have I seen such a queer embodiment of English culture depicted in the highbrow world of ballet (though of course we have bastardized versions of Scottish, Spanish, and Hungarian folk dancing galore) and I was laughing. Then the bizarre factor was really turned up as the flea and the dancers interacted. She danced with them, they carried her, she ran away as they swung their sticks, she refused to participate in leap-frog – it was just totally fun and great to watch and really a good time.

But it got better and better. The big finale with the Brazlilian Woolly Monkey had us all thinking we were going to end the night on a simple high note of “crazy monkey in a top hat” plus Carmen Miranda/Caribbean ladies in full skirts … then the Morris Men and the Zebra’s fashion models came back on stage – only suddenly Hayden Griffin’s costumes had been pared back to just the black and white, and they all blended together nicely while still maintaining ties with their earlier incarnations (I was really impressed by this).

There was a huge “everybody come out and party” finale … and then … it turned out it wasn’t the finale. The masks came off of the animals, and everyone was dealing with a sudden burst of rain … and rifle shots, occasionally hitting the people as well as the “animals.” (Or was it lightning strikes? Both seemed possible.) The lighting was really great – swirls on the floor, shimmers (of water) on the backdrop – and somehow it didn’t make the whole thing feel like, “Ooh, ooh, save the pwecious cute animals from extinction,” but rather a more generalized panic, a desire for shelter, a bit of truth about death – and while I found the final image of the Noah’s Ark (painted on a scrim so the animals could show “within” it) a bit twee, it was pretty enough as a framing device and didn’t wreck the mood. (The painting itself was childlike and I didn’t care for the use of an ark – it’s just too fraught and felt a bit inappropriate being used outside of the context of a Norman cathedral.) If I just focused on the glowing bodies huddling together behind the scrim … it was nice. And really, this whole ballet was just really great. I could talk about the rest of it at length, but 1800 words seems like quite enough! I’m really glad I had a chance to see it and I look forward to seeing the Birmingham Royal Ballet when they come back to Sadler’s Wells in the fall, presenting David Bintley’s “Cyrano” (thanks to the head up from Rob at BRB) and hopefully another program of shorts – which will, of course, be what I’ll be seing.

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, April 14th, at 7:30 PM. Two more performances take place on April 15th, at 2:30 and 7:30.)

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4 Responses to “Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Variations/Ashton, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe/Bintley) – London Coliseum”

  1. West Midlands Dance links for 23 April 2009 | West Midlands Dance Says:

    […] Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Pomp and Circumstances” (Serenade/Balanchine, Enigma Varia… – Webcowgirl went to see BRB in London and she liked what she saw Tags: birmingham royal ballet, brb, pomp and circumstances, still life at the penguin cafe, webcowgirl, youth dance england […]

  2. Spring tour blog coverage « Birmingham Royal Ballet’s touring blog Says:

    […] Webcowgirl – Life in the Cheap Seats […]

  3. Spring tour blog coverage « Rob in the Office Says:

    […] Gnome The Teenage Theatre Critic Webcowgirl – Life in the Cheap Seats ballet.co.uk Mark Ronan’s Theatre Reviews MusicOMH […]

  4. Views on Pointes of View « Birmingham Royal Ballet's touring blog Says:

    […] Royal Ballet have enjoyed some great on-line reviews of recent triple bills. These thoughts on our Pomp and Circumstances programme by Webcowgirl and this Quantum Leaps review by theballetbag.com are two fantastic examples of our on-stage […]

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