David Bintley’s “Carmina burana” has roots that go way beyond 1995, the year he took over as Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director and created this spectacle of a piece. The ballet is inspired by Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina burana, which the German composer cobbled together in the 1930s from a slew of 13th-century poems and plays discovered in a Bavarian monastery in the early 1800s. Fast-forward to 2015 and we’ve got BRB remounting the work for the first time in five years.
It’s a hard ballet to pigeon-hole. On the surface, it’s an epic of excess, a fiery fever dream of flashing lights and whirling chromatics and outlandish characters, all enmeshed to the trills of a live ensemble choir. (Orff’s libretto is hilariously subtitled “Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.”) Grounding the lavish piece, however, is a rather monastic warning: don’t give into temptation. The narrative follows three clergymen who fall from grace—a modern-day take on the Middle Age morality tales its music is derived from. To complicate “Carmina burana’s” classification further, the whole thing is squashed into a single-act, hour-long production—rather long for a mixed bill but not quite long enough to constitute a full-evening work.
There’s drama from the get-go, with Céline Gittens serving up a Roxie-Hart-goes-Tokyo vibe as Fortuna, a jazzy, Cleopatra-bobbed siren whose capricious wiggles mirror the fickleness of—you guessed it—fortune. An emcee of sorts, she presents three episodes, each detailing the downfall and comeuppance of a young seminarian. The first, played by William Bracewell, pursues a teenager at a nightclub only to find himself rejected and heartbroken, while the second (Joseph Caley) ends up passed out in an alley after falling in with a crowd of gluttonous men gorging themselves on booze, meat and seedy exploits. And then there’s Tyrone Singleton’s clergyman, who succumbs to a lady of the night, later revealed to be Fortuna in disguise. It’s very camp and very good fun, though some of the more superfluous scenes—like “Spring,” which features six pregnant ladies frolicking and little else—muddle the story, furthering its outlandish details but not its plot or themes.
The piece remains heady to its final minutes. There are club-goers jigging in lurid blonde wigs, men in fat suits parading around the dinner table, hookers high-kicking in character shoes. Some of the best performances of the night took place in the second episode: Caley pulled off some amazing turns here, coolly busting out a few triple arabesques, and Daria Stanciulescu strutted like the rent was due in her turn as the Roast Swan, the gluttons’ centerpiece reimagined as a feather-brandishing showgirl. Choreography-wise, Singleton and Gittens’ fiery duet is a highlight, as is the finale, a wild whirlwind of confetti and can-can lines featuring the whole cast. And I’d be remiss not to mention the standout talent of the choir, Ex Cathedra, who skillfully veer from startling to sing-song and everything in between.
George Balanchine’s “Serenade” precedes “Carmina burana” in this bill, and though it’s an odd pairing—the serene piece could hardly be more different in tone from brassy “Carmina”—it does show two distinct sides of the company: one that can handle the big heavyweights of the canon and one that can construct successful home-grown creations.
The much-loved ballet—a veritable veneration of the ballerina, and Balanchine’s first American creation—is in good hands with BRB, whose dancers nail the soft lyricism underpinning the piece. Bathed in moonlight and spurred on by Tchaikovsky’s soaring strings, the 17-strong ensemble glides and twirls, their swishing skirts blurring into a haze of sugary blue tulle. The cast’s lines could have been crisper and their unison more sound, but they approached the neoclassical choreography with an impressive elegance: the glissades were dainty, the chaines turns polished and light as a feather. Arancha Baselga, Miki Mizutani and Jenna Roberts took on the leading roles, blending together beautifully into a single heroine who embodies the goddess-like grace the piece venerates. (Balanchine once famously remarked it could simply be called “Ballerina.”)
Like “Carmina,” “Serenade” is ripe with material for the corps de ballet—another explanation for the pairing. BRB has some strong faces in this department, and this programme gives them a well-deserved chance to shine.