Cira Robinson in “The Suit” by Cathy Marston. Photograph by Bill Cooper

New Ventures

Birmingham Royal Ballet's autumn mixed bill

Performance
Birmingham Royal Ballet: “A Brief Nostalgia” / “The Suit” / “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Place
Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, November 2019
Words
Sara Veale

Birmingham Royal Ballet is on a creative commissioning spree. Set on widening its audience at home and away, the company has been funnelling resources into a range of choreographic initiatives and collaborations, and its shows are looking sharper for it.

BRB’s autumn mixed bill, for example, includes a slot for Ballet Black to perform Cathy Marston’s “The Suit,” an award-winning 2018 work based on a short story from South African writer Can Themba. The narrative describes a housewife’s affair and the turmoil it rains on her marriage—thorny material that Marston distils into a crisp, evocative piece of dance. It’s characteristically strong storytelling from the choreographer responsible for expressive gems like 2016’s “Jane Eyre.” Lust, anguish and blame unfold fluidly, bracketed by tidy narrative strokes and glancing choreography that underscore Ballet Black’s dramatic talents.

Cira Robinson is radiant in the central role, but it’s the ensemble that catches my eye. These five dancers bear witness to the tragedy at hand, amplifying its nuances, from the disruption of domestic routines to the upending of selfhood. In early scenes the group animates the physical infrastructure of the home, stepping in as human sinks, mirrors, coat racks; later their presence become elusive—a subtle grain that quietly enhances Marston’s world-building.

The affair itself is tense, taut and groovy, bolstered by some decadent partnering between Robinson and Mthuthuzeli November, the pair drifting in a sea of desire. Jose Alves pulls us in a different direction with his distraught husband turn, transfiguring the clothes of his rival into a hairshirt that haunts both spouses. By the time the noose emerges, it feels like the only possible conclusion—Marston’s deft chronicling is that precise.

From the BRB side is a new work from Queensland Ballet dancer Jack Lister, commissioned as part of Ballet Now, a newish programme for budding choreographers. “A Brief Nostalgia” conjures drama not through plot but atmosphere, casting its dancers into a moody shadowscape of looming walls and stark flashes of light. Tense, thumping music from newcomer Tom Harrold draws the cast from the dusky wings, sending them into each other’s arms.

The ballet aims to evoke the emotional triggers of memory, and there’s certainly punch in its emotive language and booming theatricality. “Nostalgia” seems like a misnomer, though; there’s little wistfulness to the dancing, which speaks more to grief and vulnerability, particularly the partnering, with its vicious contractions and stretchy, urgent lifts. The choreography is fragmented across various permutations, large and small-scale, culminating in a duet that cuts tunnels across a current of rolling smoke. It’s lithe wrangling, even if the themes are unfocused.

Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman in “A Brief Nostalgia” by Jack Lister. Photograph by Ty Singleton

The bill concludes with Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs,” a 1982 number that’s never quite as glamorous as its seductive music promises. Seven couples showboat under a purple disco ball, some racy, others cutesy. The ballroom elements sit uneasily alongside the ballet ones, and you never escape the feeling that it’s ballroom being performed by dancers who normally do ballet, though the BRB troupe puts in a good show, Delia Matthews and Tyrone Singleton in particular, looking red-hot as they throw splits to “That’s Life.”

Elsewhere there’s feline prowling to “One For My Baby” and goofy prancing to “Something Stupid,” plus Eilis Small and Brandon Lawrence’s melty, long-legged duet to “All the Way.” The lines are consistently lovely; it’s a just a little tame, lacking the honeyed charisma that epitomises Sinatra. I’d rather watch the company throw its energy into new ventures, even if they’re a swing and a miss. That gamble is where the excitement’s at.

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