Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet @ Birmingham Hippodrome

Clever Birmingham Royal Ballet director David Bintley has produced a great programme for the new season celebrating the BRB’s own choreographic heritage. Next week it’s Kenneth Macmillan’s block-buster Romeo and Juliet, but this week features a double bill which on paper looks more sedate.

The truth however is very different.

Both of the evening’s offerings, each by ex-Royal Ballet director Frederick Ashton are explosions of colour and virtuosity, and both simply world class.

The Dream is Ashton’s own version of Shakespeare’s timeless A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Using Mendelssohn’s famous suite as its score, at only 40 minutes long the cleverness here lies in Ashton’s witty filleting of one of the world’s great comedies to give us a magical glimpse of the genuinely funny events occurring when mortals stray into the night-time world of the supernatural. He hits the bull’s eye right away in creating a series of beautiful set pieces.

Highlights include the Demetrius and Lysander sparring as the lovers suffer “star-crossed eyes”, Matthias Dingman’s electric presence as the springing Puck and Jonathan Caguioa’s very funny Bottom. Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma’s final pas de deux as Oberon and Titania demonstrates the ease with which these dancers perform steps that look frankly impossible.

But even this lesson in expertise was only a warm-up for the evening’s second Ashton offering, A Month in the Country. New to me, I can only say that the technical demands of this exquisite work, effortlessly executed by the company, are literally jaw dropping.

Even by this company’s high standards this production is a landmark – only great dancers could even begin to execute its technical demands in this way.

Based on Turgenev’s 1855 play it concerns the arrival of tutor Beliaev into the home of a well-to-do Russian family resulting in all the women falling in love with him, and his consequent dismissal.

Another masterpiece of compression, here of a five act play into 40 minutes, the result is pure electricity at very high voltage. Iain Mackay as the tutor demonstrates that after an already illustrious career he has come into the full flower of his estate as an artist, not just as a dancer but as an actor. Coming into the enervated atmosphere of the country home, he is quite simply the fox that’s got into the henhouse. In this emotionally starved, airless drawing room even the furniture seems to be in love with him.

This most rarified of all ballets by the most subtle and yet direct of all choreographers isn’t about vague distant airy-fairy decoration at all – it is art at it’s most visceral. Put plain and simple, it’s all about sex.

In an outstanding cast it was wonderful to see Michael O’Hare, the best Willie Mossop ever, as Yslaev the head of the household. Delia Mathews proved simply heartbreaking as his wife Natalia Petrovna, Mathias Dingman’s exuberance was just right for the family’s fresh young son, while Yvette Knight touchingly demonstrated how even the servants fell instantly for the tutor’s charms.

If you see nothing else this year, see this.

BRB’s double bill runs until Saturday (February 20). For tickets phone 0844 338 5000 or visit www.birminghamhippodrome.com.

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