Last night at Sadler’s Wells, the Birmingham Royal Ballet was full of surprises. Their [Un]Leashed programme has three new (or almost) pieces, all by female choreographers and all with very different styles. Best known for their impeccable productions of traditional classical ballets, instead BRB went for one pure dance piece, one contemporary and one utterly delightful fairy story to send us all home happy.
The first, Lyric Pieces, choreographed by Jessica Lang is set to ten piano pieces by Grieg (delicately played by Jonathan Higgins). Danced with a joyful lightness of spirit by eight dancers bathed in golden light, this is a deceptively simple and elegant piece. The unusual element here is the set – it moves with them. Conceived by Lang in collaboration with molo design, this is more kinetic sculpture than static staging. Made of black kraft paper it extends and folds like a giant concertina into shapes that make walls, fans, pathways and stools, moved by the dancers to create a new set for each of the ten pieces.
Lyric Pieces moves from the ensemble to a solo (Peasant’s Song, exquisitely danced by Yvette Knight), to a trio – the particularly elegant Elves Dance with James Barton, Maureya Lebowitz and Yijing Zhang. There are rippling patterns, arresting tableaux, a love duet, Phantom, (beautifully danced by Celine Gitens and Brandon Lawrence), a final waltz and a profound musicality throughout.
The second piece, A Sense of Time, is very different, though it does also feature an interesting set (Joanna Dias) – this time a rotating wall of suitcases for the dancers to interact with. Dutch choreographer Didy Veldman has created a piece that is all about time and our relationship with it. So there are speeding figures and slow-mo figures, people frozen into stillness and others who can’t take their eyes from their phones, even during an intimate duet.
This is a big leap out of BRB’s comfort zone. Veldman brings with her a contemporary background and BRB have embraced it wholeheartedly – and not just in terms of flexed feet and elbows. They clamber over the wall, find places to perch on it, take it apart to burrow through, feet or head first, take the suitcases down to carry them off or put them on the floor to act as pillows. This is a highly innovative, fast-moving, restless piece with music by Gabriel Prokofiev, that is again out of the ballet comfort zone, a mix of electronic and orchestra.
The final piece of the evening is Peter and the Wolf with music by Sergei Prokofiev, grandfather of Gabriel. Instead of a forest, we’re in a very urban environment, dominated by a scaffold – but in every other sense, the story (narrated by Hollie McNish) and the music remain the same. It was originally created by the composer as a way of introducing children to the instruments of the orchestra and, while this is certainly a family-friendly piece, it is also more nuanced and witty than that. Peter is played as a girl – Laura Day bringing a gamine charm to the role – and Peter’s friend the Bird gives Tzu-chao Chou the opportunity to dazzle. Brooke Ray as the Duck perfects a hilarious waddle and Samara Downs is a suitably slinky cat. The hunters, Tori Forsyth-Hecken, Alys Shee and Eilis Small, are witchy women.
It’s a fitting ending to a joyous evening – and such a pity that BRB are at Sadler’s Wells for so short a season.