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Over the last few years Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bills have regularly been amongst their most successful programmes, giving audiences a taste of work from a wide range of modern choreographers and providing an exciting education in the diversity of modern dance. True to form Autumn Glory is one of the company’s most successful shows for yonks, focusing this time on the rich history of the Royal Ballet’s own roster of talented masters.
Checkmate, the night’s first offering, is a piece by Royal Ballet founder Ninette De Valois, based as you might guess on the moves of a chess game in which red battles black to the death in a series of dramatically stylised geometric moves.
If this sounds a tad dull there’s extra resonance given the date of its creation, 1937, a time when the world was slipping inexorably towards international strife and few could have foreseen the terrible tragedies about to unfold. There’s extra interest too in the fact that De Valois was one of a very few pioneers of home-grown ballet in Britain. In fact she worked with the great Diaghilev who brought ballet out of Russia in the early 20th century. After his death his collaborators including Dame Ninette disseminated ballet worldwide, so perhaps it’s not too extravagant to claim that without her powerful example it wouldn’t now be possible to see home-grown British ballet at all.
The second offering, Symphonic Variations set to the music of Cesar Franck (wonderful performance here by Jonathan Higgins) couldn’t have been more different. Choreographer Frederick Ashton who followed De Valois as the company’s Director is renowned for his sophisticated works steeped in the classical canon. In 1946 he produced this witty and sophisticated piece for six dancers which in a wide range of elegant variations exploits the many possibilities of classical steps.
If this sounds a little sterile on paper it looks thoroughly up-to-date. Moreover the beauty and warmth of Ashton’s partnerings could be seen almost as a rebuke to the American works of his contemporary Balanchine whose pieces also based on pure classical movement while clever as all get-out can seem arid and inhuman by contrast.
BRB pulled out the big guns for this one, with well-tried BRB favourites such as Nao Sakumo, Chi Cao, and Elisha Willis. Short, but very sweet.
But the evening’s real treated was saved for last, John Cranko’s irresistibly comic Pineapple Poll from 1951. This is a sort of sea-faring Cranford about some Portsmouth girls who fall for a set of bearded sailors and stow away on HMS Hot Cross Bun to get up close and personal with them. Exquisitely designed like a series of elegant hand-coloured Regency prints by Osbert Lancaster, Pineapple Poll is packed with comic and visual delights.
Effects include some wonderful vignettes such as an eager sweetheart chaperoned by a trembling spinster plus plenty of comic deckside antics from both stalwart men and cross-dressing stowaways.
But despite the sheer excellence of everyone involved it was the return of Robert Parker in one of his signature roles as Captain Belaye the jolly jack tar of all time that most pleased. His first solo brought roars of delight and there were repeated curtain calls at the end. To the delight of his many fans Mr Parker has just been appointed head of Elmhurst, BRB’s own Ballet School so his future with the company is assured. Long may this outstanding artist continue to delight us.
Autumn Glory continues until tomorrow (October 8). For tickets phone the box office on 0844 338 5000 or go online at www.birminghamhippodrome.com.
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