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Still Life in Modern Classics

Illuminated by a single spotlight, a dancer seated atop a flight of dark, ominous stairs breathily whips and whirls her arms, reaching and pulling them inwards towards her stomach. After a few moments, she faces the audience, suddenly spreading her legs as if giving birth. And so she does: to Brandon Lawrence’s white-cloth clad Apollo, who appears on the stage beneath her. 

Performance

Birmingham Royal Ballet: George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” Juliano Nunes's “Interlinked,” and
David Bintley’s “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café”

Place

Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, UK, June 8, 2023

Words

Emily May

This is “Apollo,” the 95-year-old Balanchine masterpiece that opens Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest triple bill. Following the apotheosis of the titular god, who bestows the gifts of poetry, mime, and dance on three of his muses before ascending to take his place on Mount Parnassus, the short ballet’s narrative is driven by somewhat didactic mime: while Apollo repeatedly strums his golden lyre, hoisting it over his head during impressive leaps and bounds, his muses act out their talents, fluttering their wrists as if writing, and cupping their hands to their open mouths as if singing.

Amidst these superficial actions, there are glimmers of innovation. The dancers walk in circles on flexed heels, jerk their arms in staccato port de bras, pop their pelvises forwards as their legs fly into the air, and splay and clench their fists in time to low strings in the renowned Stravinsky score. The contrast between these devilish details and sections of more traditional balletic vocabulary is intoxicating, as are the complex geometric configurations the dancers form. At one moment, Apollo lifts two kneeling muses off the ground, their legs remaining bent behind them so they appear like two floating mirrored l-shapes. At another, three dancers bend sideways, looping their arms around the circle of Apollo’s like keys on a keyring. 

This geometric pattern forming is far from abstract, however, as the muses' individual personalities shine throughout the piece. Celine Gittens's Terpsichore is particularly cheeky as she flutters with her celestial colleagues around Apollo, popping her knees and flexing her hands in front of her chest in Betty Boop style poses. Later, the muses push and pull the somewhat unwilling young Olympian in different directions, before directing him up the aforementioned steps towards his destiny as God of music, dance, and poetry. With all of the challenges facing the cultural sector today, no wonder he’s reluctant to take on the role! The muses' command of the situation also interestingly reframes the relationship between female muse and male creator as more malleable and symbiotic than the patriarchal and exploitative examples that can be seen throughout history. 

Birmingham Royal Ballet in “Interlinked” by Juliano Nunes. Photograph Tristram Kenton

Gender, and its role in ballet is placed in greater focus in Juliano Nunes’s “Interlinked.” Originally created in 2022 for BRB’s “On Your Marks!” triple bill celebrating Birmingham being the host city of the Commonwealth games, the piece professes to explore the key values of the Commonwealth, including inspiration, tolerance, and respect. It’s quite a broad starting point, and gives little for the audience to latch onto. However, when the lights rise on a stage filled with a large ensemble of male and female dancers all dressed in Giselle-style long skirts and leotards, there’s plenty of food for thought. Matched perfectly to their respective skin tones, their costumes are a heartwarming allusion to recent developments in inclusive dancewear, namely tights and pointe shoes. 

As the dancers begin to move, the costume’s unisex approach extends to the choreography, which flies in the face of classical ballet’s gendered categorisations of movements. In the first half of the piece, they embody light, delicate dynamics, flourishing their wrists as they slide in and out of each other in parallel lines. The depth of the stage is used to particularly good effect here, presenting the audience with layers of simultaneous activity, creating a rich tapestry of continuously unfurling movement in the process. While mixed gender partnerships end up prevailing, there are some tender duets between men who support each other in turns, leg extensions, and balances.  

The fluidity of “Interlinked” starts off as hypnotic, but the lack of dynamic variation in both the choreography and Luke Howard’s specially composed score means that the piece quickly becomes monotonous. Things get a little spicier towards the end, however, with the dancers switching from their languid motions to strong leaps, sharp footwork, flicks, twists, and whipping turns. 

The evening closes with former BRB director David Bintley’s 1988 “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café.” Known to many millennials, including myself, as their set work for their GCSE dance theory paper, this restaging is like the grainy VHS I studied come to life. It’s just missing is the spoken introduction by Jeremy Irons about the human-induced extinction of the great auk. Without this preface, the ballet begins jovially: the audience gasps in delight as the curtain rises on a solitary dancer dressed as a penguin waiter in front of an icy blue and white iceberg backdrop. Skipping nimbly around the stage with flexed feet and an arched back, he twirls his tray in curved pathways to Simon Jeffes’s buoyant score.   

Soon enough, the background switches to a painting of a palm court-style saloon. The stage is flooded with penguin waiters, women in glamorous evening gowns, and penguin-human hybrids ballroom dancing together with nonchalant swaggering shoulders and quirky nodding heads. As the activity subsides, the main penguin stands solemnly still and raises his finger to the audience, imploring them to pay attention to the forthcoming activity. 

Birmingham Royal Ballet in “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe” by David Bintley. Photograph by Johan Persson

What follows is a series of charming vignettes introducing the audience to a range of weird and wonderful creatures, who we learn from the programme note are all endangered species. Bringing together opulent sets and costumes with witty choreography, it’s a veritable visual feast. We meet everyone from a sultry, elegant ram to a bent kneed and bouncing Texan Kangaroo rat, whose armpit scratches induce giggles from younger audience members. There’s also a frisky flea surrounded by a troupe of stick beating morris dancers, and a spine rippling zebra. As he shunts forward, rhythmically flicking two hand-held brushes, he’s surrounded by fashionable, stoney-faced women who flutter their fingers in Vogue style gestures, the skull hats and striped dresses they wear uncomfortably similar to the skin and facial structure of the African equine . . . 

BRB’s dancer make you fall in love with their animals, which makes it all the more disconcerting when their worlds begin to unravel: while the zebra falls to the floor in time with a sudden gun crack in the score, a human family of rainforest dwellers run in sweeping pathways and gaze into the auditorium wistfully as if nervous of what’s to come. Even the entrance of the mischievous Brazilian Woolly Monkey with his carnival dancers feels slightly unsettling, his flamboyant suit and impressive tricks a reminder of how wild animals are forced to perform for human entertainment. The piece comes to a climax as storm sounds overlay with the live orchestra, the stage lights flashing as the cast runs frantically in horizontal pathways looking for shelter. Spoiler: not everyone finds it. 

Birmingham Royal Ballet in “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe” by David Bintley. Photograph by Johan Persson

The contrast between “Still Life’s” thought-provoking ending and its jolly beginnings hammers Bintley’s point home: how could we have let this happen to such loveable, fascinating creatures? It’s a message that feels just as relevant, if not more so, than it must have been in the late ’80s. It also reveals that while Nunes's “Interlinked” may be the most recently choreographed work of BRB’s programme, there’s ‘still life’ in the messages and movements of Bintley and Balanchine. If only the triple bill was touring so that more new audiences could be exposed to them.

Emily May


Emily May is a British-born, Berlin-based arts writer and editor specializing in dance and performance. An alumna of Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance and a member of the Dance Section of the U.K. Critics' Circle, she regularly contributes to publications across Europe and America including Dance Magazine, Art Review, Frieze, The Stage, Flash Art, The Brooklyn Rail, and Springback Magazine. She is currently an editor at COLORSxSTUDIOS, where she launched and continues to manage a new editorial platform.

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