The Birmingham Royal Ballet most certainly made their presence felt in London last week, visiting the Coliseum to celebrate 20 years of their director, David Bintley, with a pairing of Serenade and Carmina Burana. The former is George Balanchine’s abstract nocturne to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings – a sweet and delicate reverie standing in marked contrast to the latter, a frenzied medley of moral tales set to Carl Orff’s thumping great cantata, which was created by Bintley upon taking the helm in 1995. These shades of light and dark slapped up against one another gave a profound sense of the company’s two sides – work-time and playtime. It was as though we were seeing them first dancing in class, watching their postures with studious care before letting rip in a club later that night – not just shrugging off their classical confines but, like self-righteous teenagers, actively highlighting their rebellion by performing provocative choreography with exaggerated vigour. And like any such teenagers, this sort of hyperbole didn’t ring altogether true, but did make for a stonking show.
Serenade was proficient and pretty, with the girls looking like perfect ballerinas in their simple pale blue attire and the only real embellishments being their diamond stud earrings, which twinkled when they caught the light. Sadly, unlike the jewels, Balanchine’s fluid choreography did not shimmer in the way that it can. When he created the piece in the Thirties, it came out of rehearsals at the School of American Ballet as an exploration in pattern, form and movement; it takes clear inspiration from the iconic images of the corps de ballet in classics such as Swan Lake, La Bayadere and Les Sylpides, where the dancers move as a unit to create the most stunning tableaus that ripple and undulate much like water, developing very gradually into different silhouettes. And this requires not just steely control but absolute uniformity, which is fiendish to achieve. All it takes is for one girl to think she’s doing better than the others by tilting her chin higher than theirs, only for her to stand out and thus ruin the overall effect for everyone. Sadly, there were various little such distractions to the eye at the Coliseum and though none is fatal to the performance on its own, their cumulative effect very much belittles the impact of the piece.
In addition, Elisha Willis as the main female lead failed to convince with her stiff approach to the classical style, which seemed to hinder her rapport with her partner, the masterful Tyrone Singleton. There was one set of pirouettes during which he seemed to have to yank her round and hold her up all at once – incredibly messy. Happily, the two other female soloists were a delight to behold and each brightened the stage. First was the whippy Momoko Hirata, neat as a button and full of impish vitality. Then there was Céline Gittens, oozing charisma with a robust sense of inner confidence and striking athletic physique – a beguiling watch.
All in all, one got the feeling that this first act was merely a warm up for the real show in the second, as Carmina Burana brought with it a new boldness. It teemed with allegorical imagery, and often crassly so, as when giant wooden crosses descended above the heads of the seminarians at the plot’s centre. Similarly, a group of pregnant girls batted their eyelids as they pranced about with babies strapped to their backs and unnerving jock straps beneath their sheer chiffon dresses. These things certainly cause a stir but don’t deliver any particularly coherent message, and such is the way with Philip Prowse’s flagrant designs: suggestive but troublingly strange.
In this tale we meet three seminarians, and each suffers a fall from grace as he is corrupted by his experiences (and inevitable misfortunes) in love – and lust. The steepest tumble comes at the hands of the fearsome Fortuna, who is based on the Roman goddess of luck and fate, and lays claim to Orff’s overwhelming bookend to his work, the famous ‘Oh Fortuna.’ A common prostitute, Fortuna makes her smitten seminarian believe her to be in love with him. Following our introduction to her in black with her eyes veiled and her jagged arms and legs practically sniping, she softens into the role of playful lover and submissive female to her strong man. The lighting mellows and her dress is swapped for a passionate red. But then, in a billowing flurry of white silk that encompasses the entire stage, the illusion she has created drops away, and the seminarian is left exposed (not just because he’s in his underpants), vulnerable and at her mercy. Luck has not fallen on his side, and Fortuna’s haunting theme recapitulates to remind us of her true, cold-hearted nature. Samara Downes astonishes in this menacing part.
The effect of all this is visceral, the audience’s hands collapsing into stunned applause without need for thought. Such an impression would not have been possible without the superb ensemble Ex Cathedra, who sung the work from the stage-side choir boxes. Nor, to be fair, without Prowse’s designs: no, they’re not subtle and they’re not for everybody but they’re bloody effective.
A lot of this felt like a bad dream stuck in the Eighties, with Voguing Madonna lookalikes, colour-blocked clowns and oversized business suits that gave the seminarians a bizarre whiff of American Psycho: The Musical at times. Nonetheless, the three lead roles were persuasively performed by Iain Mackay, Jamie Bond and Mathias Dingman, and even Elisha Willis perked up, skipping into character as a flippant, fickle-hearted young village girl. The company clearly relished performing Carmina Burana, which they did so with confidence, glee and a good sense of humour, and this only strengthened its impact even though not every aspect came off.