Having an affinity for a particular theatre company, or dance company, or orchestra, is a matter of habit. For four years from 2003 to 2007 Mrs Chrisparkle and I were regulars at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. We would take our little nieces, or our Godchildren, plonk them down in the middle of the Birmingham Hippodrome stalls and they would be overwhelmed with the excitement, the colour, the beauty and the artistry of the dancers. We used to love it too. Then for some reason, we stopped. Mentally I still admired them from afar, but it’s taken ten full years since then to re-establish our proper and much missed acquaintance.David Bintley, who compered this evening of Music and Dance, told us these shows were a regular phenomenon in Birmingham and have gone down a storm at the Symphony Hall for many years. For the first time they were stretching their wings and taking the show out of town – first stop (and indeed, only stop) Northampton. Thank you so much for thinking of us, BRB, because this was an evening of unmitigated delight that transported the audience from a wet January Saturday to a land of magic and escapism. Everything was beautiful at the ballet, sang the girls from A Chorus Line and if you ever needed proof of that, look no further. When you enter the auditorium, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia are all in place on the stage and there’s a large empty area in front of them where the dancers can perform. Will the orchestra distract from the dancers? Will the dancers distract from the orchestra? Neither, somehow the staging seems to complement each other perfectly. Our conductor was Paul Murphy, an enthusiastic chap who’s not above encouraging the orchestra with a bit of jazz hands when a mere baton isn’t enough. He reminded me of a clean-shaven, smartened up and sober version of Father Jack. His utter delight in his work clearly transmits itself to the orchestra who in turn convey it to us. When you see an orchestral performance with a soloist on the violin or the piano, you know that the conductor has to split his attention 50:50 between orchestra and soloist. Similarly, it was fascinating to see how Mr Murphy had to keep one eye on the dancers as well as his musicians in order to keep perfect time with their moves. I’m sure that’s a particular skill that takes many years to achieve and he did it brilliantly.
The structure of the show is that the Sinfonia performs one orchestral piece, then dancers come on stage and the Sinfonia play the accompaniment; then another piece, then another dance, alternating throughout the evening so that we enjoy twelve items in all – six orchestral pieces and six dances. To be honest, the balletomane in me would have been happy for each of the twelve pieces to have featured dance – I guess that’s what I was expecting – but I appreciate that the alternating pattern sustained the variety of the entertainment, which was probably wise. You can have too much of a good thing, after all.We started with the cute confection that is the prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – Mrs C was a little disappointed that this wasn’t an orchestral version of The Last Waltz – and then our first dance was the Act III pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Can’t beat a spot of Petipa, and Principal Dancers Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton danced it magnificently, decked out in stunning white brocaded costumes. It wasn’t until this first dance that I realised our third row seat gave us an unusually close view of classical ballet – normally with an orchestra in the pit in a large theatre even front stalls seats can feel quite distant from the dancers. Not so this time; and our proximity to the stage gave me an opportunity to concentrate on the technical achievements of the dancers – the balance, the strength, the accuracy, which I find irresistibly rewarding to observe. Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite no 2, The Wild Bears, followed; I’d never heard it before and I was impressed by the way the orchestra threw themselves into its frenzied excitement – one of those pieces that is just great fun. Then our next dance was the pas de deux from After the Rain, by Arvo Pärt, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The poignant, elegant music is played by just the solo violin – Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs – and solo piano, played by Jonathan Higgins, which made a solemn contrast with the liveliness of what had gone before. It was danced by Principals Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay on his very final show with the company; he’s been 19 years with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (I’m sure we saw him in Carmina Burana many years ago) and it turned out to be quite an emotional night. The dancers simply immersed themselves in the elegant choreography which managed to be both acrobatic and stately, and the power of the performance was literally breathtaking. The next musical item was Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood Suite, another piece new to me that had something of a military march to it – I have to say it’s nothing like as evocative of Robin Hood as Carl Sigman’s TV theme, but then what do I know? I was more looking forward to the last dance before the interval, the famous and funny clog dance from La Fille mal gardée choreographed by Frederick Ashton. James Barton, fresh from his year dancing in An American in Paris, danced the role of the Widow, with a cheekily sprightly step and a scarcely suppressed titter. Four soloists, Yvette Knight, Laura Purkiss, Yaoqian Shang and Yijing Zhang completed the coquettishly clogging quintet. Enormous fun, and of course such a catchy piece of music played by the Sinfonia. After the interval, we returned to hear Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance Op 46, No 8; the Slavonic Dances are among my favourite pieces of classical music and they gave it a blistering performance. Next up was Weber’s Spectre de la Rose, choreographed by Fokine and danced by Arancha Baselga and Cesar Morales. A very stylised piece, it features Ms Baselga languishing in a posh chair whilst Mr Morales leaps in through the (imaginary) window and cavorts around her. Despite occupying all the available dance space it still comes over as a remarkably intimate piece; and Mr Morales’ Nijinskyesque leaps were pretty phenomenal. A perfect balletic blend of the pure and fragile with the powerful and muscular – a superb performance. The Sinfonia then played Sibelius’ Valse Triste, a delicate and moving little piece that sways along; perhaps a little faster than it is normally played, and I think all the better for it. Compere David Bintley returned to introduce Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in what was to be his very final dance on stage in his career, Bintley’s own choreography to the much-loved Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian, a personal parting gift to the dancer from the director. Mr Mackay danced Spartacus and Ms Roberts his wife Phrygia, in a piece where she informs him she would be giving birth to his son. It was a truly wonderful piece of choreography; very moving, very joyous, and absolutely jam-packed with all different sorts of emotions. Fokine marvellous, in fact. Before the final dance fireworks (Mr Bintley’s words – and so right he was), the Sinfonia performed two dances from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the instruments positively buzzing with Falla’s fiery orchestrations. Our last item was the pas de deux and solos from Don Quixote; Petipa at his extravagant best. The dancers were Principals Momoko Hirata, performing those crowd-pleasing pirouettes with total joy, and Mathias Dingman who attacked those solo show-off sequences like there’s no tomorrow – his brisés in particular were immaculately executed. The final standing ovation went for a very long time, with of course special hugs and appreciation for Iain Mackay’s two decades of duty with the company. What a hugely entertaining show; every orchestral piece brimmed with excitement, and every dance was in-your-face fantastic. It was a real privilege to be there. Birmingham Royal Ballet, I apologise for ignoring you over the last ten years. It’s been too long. Hope you’ll make this a regular date and even bring one of your full-length ballets our way some time soon.
The production photos are from a variety of online sources, and from different ballets from those performed in the concert; if they are yours, please let me know if you would like me to remove them.