Birmingham Royal Ballet: Pomp and Circumstance @ Coliseum, London

performed by
Elisha Willis, Momoko Hirata, Nao Sakuma, Cesar Morales, Matthew Lawrence, Jonathan Payn, Victoria Marr, Kit Holder, David Morse, James Grundy, Natasha Oughtred, Robert Parker, Valentin Olovyannikov, Carol-Anne Millar, Chi Cao, Dominic Antonucci, Gaylene Cummerfield, Laura Purkiss, Angela Paul, Christopher Larsen, James Barton, Feargus Campbell, Aonghus Hoole, Oliver Till, Arancha Baselga, Samara Downs, Yvette Knight, Delia Mathews, Callie Roberts, Anniek Soobroy, Andrea Tredinnick, Victoria Marr, Georgia Smart, Laetitia Lo Sardo

directed by
David Bintley
With Sylvia to follow, Pomp and Circumstances is the first of two productions that Birmingham Royal Ballet is bringing to the London Coliseum this week for its 2009 spring dance season.

And with the second piece in this triple bill specifically entitled Enigma Variations, enigmas were to be found in every ballet in this highly varied and beautifully crafted programme.

The evening began with George Balanchine’s Serenade, a revolutionary piece when it first appeared in 1935 that uses Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, Op.48.

Working with whatever students happened to attend his classes each day at the newly founded School of American Ballet, Balanchine’s choreography still has an air of improvisation about it that only adds to its charm.

The enigma here is that whilst the title of Serenade alludes to societal conventions and values, this staging by Desmond Kelly, after Patricia Neary, places the drama far from civilisation in a cosmic void.
With a bare stage and translucent blue lighting, as the curtain rose the dancers looked like atoms as they stood in diagonal lines that formed two interlocking squares.

Making some wonderful formations that could represent either naturalistic trees or twisted man-made structures, every so often one dancer would shoot off across the stage like a loose atom that possessed enough energy to escape from the mass. It proved that though Serenade is now a mainstay of the ballet repertoire, staged in the right way it can still feel as innovative today as when it was first conceived.

Enigma Variations, which featured a host of characters in an Edwardian landscape, initially seemed a rather sedate affair as the dynamic dancing of the more jovial figures held only limited appeal. The enigma, however, lay in the fact that the sub-text was far from joyful. When in 1970 the Royal Ballet’s Founder Choreographer, Frederick Ashton, learned he was to be ‘retired’, he choreographed Elgar’s iconic composition as a way of reflecting on, and seeking solace in, friendships.

Both Elgar and Ashton were, at heart, Edwardian men, and as we witnessed a series of interactions between young lovers, and indeed between Elgar and his wife, the message seemed to be that love and friendship are enough to make everything all right. However, with an autumnal setting and the final happy tableaux resembling an Edwardian group photograph, we rather felt that this was an outdated truth that no longer held sway in the modern world.

The enigma of David Bintley’s ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Caf of 1988 is that long before the environment became a mainstream political issue, this ballet highlighted the ecological catastrophe we are currently headed for. With music by Simon Jeffes, each scene featured an endangered species, so we saw a flea dancing with morris dancers, a zebra with ‘showgirls’, and a monkey with ‘matadors’. That the dances were presented in a playful manner made them no less potent as we witnessed the rat and zebra dying at the end of their scenes.

There were also subtle commentaries on how humans treat animals as objects, as demonstrated when five men lifted a ram horizontally, only for four of them to walk away and leave the fifth struggling to maintain it in this position. It was also telling that visually there didn’t seem to be much difference between the penguins and the men dressed in dinner jackets in the caf.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet may lack such world class names as David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes who graced the Coliseum’s stage two weeks ago when the American Ballet Theatre visited. It is, however, a fine company in its own right, and it more than proved that by focusing on innovative programming and ensemble dancing, it can put in a performance that is capable of standing with the best of them.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of Sylvia will be performed at the London Coliseum, 16-18 April 2009.

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