Birmingham Royal Ballet
Yvette Knight in “Lyric Pieces” by Jessica Lang. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Two Premieres and a Reprise

Birmingham Royal Ballet's triple bill, “[Un]leashed”

Performance
Birmingham Royal Ballet's “[Un]leashed”
Place
Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, June 25 & 26, 2019
Words
Sara Veale

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest bill, “[Un]leashed,” treats us to two premieres and a reprised 2012 ballet, all from female choreographers. It’s an attractive offering, somewhat unfocused but capably danced and dressed with some handsome moments.  

The highlight of the evening is Jessica Lang’s “Lyric Pieces,” a comely octet arranged across a suite of Edvard Grieg’s piano solos. Black paper pleats garnish a simply lit stage, folding accordion-style to form fans, footstools, even a large abstract sculpture. It’s a nifty choice for a prop—unfussy and elegantly conceived. One striking visage sees the pleats stretched and draped over two dancers’ curved backs—stately elephant trunks that trail along the floor. In another they’re rolled into tight cylinders, an anchor for willowy extensions and deep-seated pliés.

The ensemble chases the music as it skips from velvety to bracing, weaving skitters and bounces into its brisk notes. Dashes of folk dance are sprinkled throughout, from skips and ballottés to whirling square-dance spins. Some of the best performances come in a female quartet, a rippling waltz that sends its ballerinas cascading to the floor like southern belles fainting in the heat. Later, Tzu-Chao Chou churns out swizzling pirouettes against an aquamarine sky, and Brandon Lawrence and Céline Gittens sparkle in a moonlit tangle of soft, twirling lifts.

Birmingham Royal Ballet
Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in “Sense of Time” by Didy Veldman. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Rushing to this show after an overlong day at work, sweat-soaked from the Tube, duly primed me for Didy Veldman’s “Sense of Time,” an introspective piece about the hustle and bustle of modern-day life. How do we choose to spend our time? How much of that is within our control? The new ballet is set to a bespoke score by Gabriel Prokofiev, its tsk-ing cymbals alive with the go-get-’em gusto of mid-century New York. The stage is busy, alight with roving formations and a quickening drumbeat.

Veldman layers different tempos and dynamics across the work, some harmonious, some erratic. A lone man presses against a tide of pedestrians, the confrontation played out in slow-motion; voices whisper atop the score, hinting at an overflowing mind; dancers pluck suitcases from a hulking pile, darting around in a show of busyness, or possibly transience. Amid the hubbub are stolen moments in time, including another tight duet between Lawrence and Gittens—this time a little wild, a little desperate, the former plying luxurious extensions out of the latter.

Other scenes wander, though: for example, Lawrence gathering up as many suitcases as possible, like someone determined to get their groceries from the car in a single trip. These meanders don’t offer much in the way of clarity or flair, and pale against the music, with its peppery brass and urgent honks.

Birmingham Royal Ballet
Brooke Ray as Duck and Laura Day as Peter in Ruth Brill’s “Peter and the Wolf.” Photograph by Andrew Ross

It’s Prokofiev’s renowned grandfather, Sergei, behind the score in BRB first artist Ruth Brill’s new take on “Peter and the Wolf.” In his 1936 “symphonic fairy tale,” each character is assigned an instrument—Peter strings, the Wolf horns and so on—and the action plays out among its intersecting notes, a narrator describing it over top (in this case, the poet Hollie McNish). With its plucky protagonist and hip-to-the-kids setting—think sneakers, scaffolds and basketball hoops—Brill’s treatment has the easy, predictable cadence of an after-school special. Nike swooshes and sunglasses don’t offer much edge.

Nor does the choreography take advantage of the narration, which should free it from the need for miming. Instead the dancing is surprisingly literal, pretty enough but lacking the imagination that would distinguish this revival. On the plus side are vibrant turns from Samara Downs and Tzu-Chao Chou—a delightful cat and bird duo—and a shrewd slice of stageplay when Mathias Dingman’s wolf gobbles up Brooke Ray’s duck. Unfortunately, that’s about the only bite we see.

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