mon 24/06/2024

The Grand Tour/ Faster/ The Dream, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome | reviews, news & interviews

The Grand Tour/ Faster/ The Dream, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome

The Grand Tour/ Faster/ The Dream, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome

David Bintley loses the name battle but knocks the Olympics bullies into the park with an outstanding new ballet

Faster: A haunting gymnast's trio with William Bracewell, Ambra Vallo and Jamie BondFaster images © Bill Cooper

Cafés, ballets, it’s all the same to the mighty petty bullyboys of the London Olympics, who have not only devised two of the most revolting mascots in Olympic history (the one-eyed slugs Wenlock and Mandeville) but also employed teams of apparatchiks in your name and mine to compel artists and small businesses not to infringe their entirely dubious copyright in the Olympic motto.

David Bintley came out much the better of a last-minute squabble a fortnight ago about his new ballet’s name - he had to truncate it to Faster, from his original “Faster, Higher, Stronger”, so that LOCOG could keep every penny anyone might possibly want to make from Olympics associations, ancient and modern.

Iswimmers Faster cBill Cooper suggest the Olympics crawl to Bintley fast and ask him to make his new ballet a big feature of their opening ceremony, expanded to arena size, because it’s a credit to a rather higher level of aspiration and imaginative collaboration than LOCOG appear capable of. This is a very good piece of work, fast, strong, theatrically clever and musically powerful, a smart use of athletics motifs in a balletic aesthetic, making riches of slender resources and a credit to British endeavour.

Faster fields dancers very fetchingly clothed in skin-tight sports outfits by the new young designer Becs Andrews, attractive takes on gymwear, swimwear, cycling bodysuits, basketball sweats and track athletes’ two-pieces, with a lot of long beautiful legs and washboard stomachs on view. It opens as the opening ceremony, athletes in ranks making the ancient salute to the crowds and the gods, while peremptory fanfares arrest our attention, and then Bintley breaks them into an intricate and richly woven carpet of top-speed movement. It has echoes of the multi-screen effects of American modern dance of Twyla Tharp and Merce Cunningham as your eye switches between groups of "athletes", but you keep spotting discreet motifs, the archer girls’ lovely bow-drawn ports de bras, the tae-kwondo’s kick becoming a swift ballet développé.

Teams suddenly break through the medley of individualists: the basketball boys bouncing and leaping, the synchro swim girls smoothly flowing. The impressive setting-out sharpens into a gorgeous trio for Ambra Vallo, Jamie Bond and William Bracewell, fusing with a delicate touch the elasticity and clarity of ballet into the outré physical marvels of gymnastics, the suspenseful lifts hanging in silence between blasts of horns. (There are shades there of the lovely Venus pas de trois lost in Bintley’s Planets ballet long ago.)

elisha willis iain mackay fasterA slightly less magnetically devised duet comes amidships between male and female fighters, Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis, in which she is melodramatically “injured” and there's a dark night of the soul involving what may be physiotherapy and a shaky recovery (pictured left). This may well look better as the performers become braver in it. The finale floods the stage with runners, whose vim and mesmerisingly attractive bodies as revealed in their brief outfits makes a stunning sight.

It’s ballet, but it’s athletics too, and what makes it good art is that it is musical expression too - this is another confident step in the new renaissance of music-driven ballet, spearheaded by Bintley at BRB and by Mark Baldwin at Rambert. Bintley seems finally to be coming into a rich maturity in his talent for sheer balletic movement, more confident in recent years, working not with narratives (at which he's iffy) but with really exciting new scores. This one is again by the hugely impressive Matthew Hindson, the Australian composer who composed the music for Bintley’s 2010 ballet, e=mc2. What Hindson is doing with Bintley, as Julian Anderson and Gavin Higgins have done with Baldwin, is generating an exhilarating new revival of serious music in the dance theatre, fascinating for the audience and challenging to the dancers.

The Grand Tour cSimon TomkinsonAbove: The Grand Tour - Noel Coward (Matthew Lawrence), Gertrude Lawrence (Elisha Willis) and the American Lady (Victoria Marr). © Simon Tomkinson

The rest of the programme was iffier. A disinterment of Joe Layton’s 1971 The Grand Tour is a Miss Marple-esque opening, set on a liner with Twenties celebrities Noel Coward, Gertrudes Lawrence and Stein, George Bernard Shaw and Hollywood’s darlings Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, elegantly smoking and doing a few slight foot moves while Coward’s tunes play. It is the balletic equivalent of Hello! magazine, rather than a wickedly witty, fruity portrait of society monsters that the dancers could relish.

dream nao sakuma smiljanicThis cadavre exquis of an evening ends with Frederick Ashton’s fairy ballet The Dream, a jewel of compressed wit created by a master -  Shakespeare in 55 succulent minutes - with Oberon and Titania seething among the fairies and hokey-cokey Mechanicals, and the four lovers playing their farcical misunderstandings at top speed. And all the mad whirling tiffs end in a pas de deux of reconciliation as incomprehensibly exquisite as butterfly’s wings, as Oberon and Titania sublimate their headstrong arguments into erotic desire.

BRB’s isn’t the prettiest production: Peter Farmer’s scenery and costumes are a poor cousin to the Royal Ballet’s David Walker ones, not at all helped by the permanent presence of a gauze cutting off the dancers from the audience. It is past time for a redesign of this evergreen, ever-delicious ballet - today’s young designers surely have fresh new visions of fairies to dazzle us with.

Not the most fairylike company dancing, or playing, either, by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy, but there was an outstanding  performance from Chi Cao as Oberon, the sternest, most furious and most brilliant of fairy kings, though he tired visibly at the end of this taxing night. Nao Sakuma is not a fantastical dancer by nature and Titania needs a dreamer, a visionary, like Alina Cojocaru at the Royal last month. Among the four lovers, I became very fond of Steven Monteith’s vivid, blond Lysander.

Find @ismeneb on Twitter


Saw Summer Celebration this afternoon. Faster was brilliant...Celine and Tyrone were magnificent. James was the perfect Puck for Dream. BRB have done it again! Well done.

We were amazed at the precision of all the Company, and so delighted to see another World Premier of BrB art. I am suprised that there were not more such reviews in the usual press.

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