Yesterday evening I saw Ballet Theatre UK ("BTUK") dance The Little Mermaid at The Atkinson in Southport. This was the first time I had seen BTUK and my first visit to The Atkinson and i was impressed with both. I left the theatre on a high (as I always expect to do) eager to see more of both.
BTUK is no ordinary company. It has a punishing schedule. Before coming to Southport it had danced a matinee and evening at Dunstable on the 22 April, an evening show at Tamworth on the 23, a matinee and evening at Keswick on the 24 and an evening at Runcorn on the 26. Today it crosses the Ribble to Blackpool and on 1 May it comes to Rotherham and then on Peterborough on the 2. I counted over 66 different venues throughout the British Isles. This show has quite elaborate scenery and props and sumptuous costumes. Bearing in mind that the dancers must find time for company classes, rehearsing their next production, eating and drinking, some kind of family and social life as well as travelling, I take my hat off to them. An hour's class alone takes it out of me. Admittedly I am a lot older than the dancers and very new to ballet but a couple of hours on stage is still hard work requiring considerable concentration and stamina even for a young man or woman with years of training.
The company is also remarkable in that it has an extensive repertoire choreographed largely by its artistic director Christopher Moore. These include an Aladdin but not David Bintley's, A Christmas Carol but not Christopher Gable's, an Alice in Wornderland but not Christopher Wheeldon's as well as old favourites such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker and The Sleeping Beauty. I googled Christopher Moore but all I could find was the blurb on BTUK's website stating that he had trained at Tring and had danced professionally all over the world in many different productions. Clearly, the company is ambitious. It has established a school in Hinckley with Daria Klimentova as its patron and, according to its website, its guest tutor. In many ways BTUK reminds me of the London Festival Ballet in the 1960s when I first took an interest in ballet. I think BTUK is going places and I am not just referring to the tour schedule.
Yesterday's performance was lovely. First, it was a good story based closely on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. In the programme Christopher Moore wrote that on the first day in the studio the company faced two rather large challenges one of which was
"would we use the original ending written by Andersen and used in the book's first edition, or would it be better to have a happier ending similar to the one used by the Walt Disney company in the classic 1989 animated film!"In the end after much deliberation Moore and the company chose to stick with the original and I think that they were right to do so because it made for a much more interesting story and gave the character of the little mermaid some depth.
Having lost out on one Faustian pact with the sea witch she was offered another. The first agreement allowed her to come on shore with legs but only on condition that she should marry the prince whose life she had saved. The downside was that she would perish if she failed. The terms of the other pact were that she could return to the sea as a mermaid if she killed the prince who had rejected her.
Now that presented the mermaid with an interesting moral dilemma. At least some of the audience would urge her to accept the offer and kill the prince in order to save herself. Some would say that the prince had it coming for his ingratitude to the one who had rescued him. However, she decided to sacrifice her life in order that he might live. As Hans Christian Andersen tells us that mermaids do not believe in an after life, accepting instant annihilation in order to do the right thing is even more of a sacrifice than it would be for a human,
Secondly, the ballet had a very good score. I don't know how much of it was original. I recognized the Geordie ditty about a little fishy when the boat comes in as well as some sea shanties from the last night of the proms and an ear worm that was never off Uncle Mac's Children's Favourites in the 1950s but which I can't for the life of me remember/ However, it all fitted together very well indeed and I found myself humming bits of it to myself on the long drive back from Southport.
I have already mentioned the scenery, props and costumes which was yet another aspect of the ballet that I liked. Comparisons are odious and I have already cut out lots of references to The Winter's Tale but lengths of fabric have far more in common with waves than large land mammals. After being hauled half way round the kingdom and back one would expect the sea backdrop and the wedding dresses to look a bit tired by now but they were still fresh. And they really wowed the audience.
However, it was the dancing that I really loved. Now that there is a very remote possibility that I may perform in public at the end of June I am treating every ballet performance as an extra lesson. In this lesson I learnt a lot about port de bras. That is the most appealing aspect of Moore's choreography. There was drama as the mermaid painfully discovered her legs and was forcibly accustomed to human ways, How she grimaced and struggled in the bath, especially as the soles of her soles were scrubbed. All that added yet another dimensions to the ballet. How do people born without legs get used to them and begin to walk?
The programme came without a cast list and that was my only grip of the evening. I asked a gentlemen in a BTUK tee shirt who was selling programmes where I could get one.
"Oh we never give them out" he replied.
"But I want to review this show for my blog," said I. "Can you tell me who danced tonight?"
"Was the mermaid blonde or brunette?" the programmer enquired.
"Brunette, I think but under the lights with all that makeup ......"
"Oh it must have been Sarah" he said.
I looked at my programme and it did indeed look like Sarah Mortimer: but it was not until I returned home and looked up a post on BalletcoForum by someone I know only as Hfbrew that I could be sure. According to Hfbrew
"Sarah Mortimer as mermaid (the beautiful mermaid on the poster) , Luca Verone as the prince,Jessica Hill as sea witch and Natalie Cawte as princess."All of them danced well as indeed did the whole cast.
When looking up Sarah Mortimer I noticed that she had trained at Ballet West in Taynuilt near Oban. I know a little bit about the school having seen its pupils and teachers perform "The Nutcracker" and Swan Lake. I have also visited the village in which it is located and rejoiced at its success in the Genée. I was delighted to see that not just Mortimer but also Joseph Mackie-Groves and Charlotte Eades studied at Ballet West. I am delighted that students of that school who are hundreds of miles from Floral Street, Tring, Birmingham, Leeds and even Glasgow are establishing themselves in their careers. I wish them and indeed all the dancers from every other ballet school and company every success.
Finally, I should like to say a word or two about Southport in general and the Atkinson in particular. Southport is a town that I should know better than I do because my father was born there. Apart from two forays to its county court when I was starting out at the Bar and one weekend at a party conference when I was on the committee of the party's lawyers' association I have never had much to do with the town. That is a pity because it has an excellent fish restaurant, the smallest pub in England, a lawnmower museum, an elegant thoroughfare called Lord Street (happily being restored to its Edwardian glory), a dance shop called Centre Stage and a magnificent arts complex all collectively known as "The Atkinson" of which the theatre forms part. The best thing about The Atkinson is that it has pictures and exhibits to admire during the interval as it is an art gallery, museum and library as well as a theatre.
Yesterday the theatre seemed to be packed. There was barely an empty seat in the house. We started at the slightly unusual time of 18:00 which worked out very well. Dining in time for a 19:30 start really is a little too early for most folk and after 22:00 (always supposing restaurants are open at that time) is a little too late. An early start meant that the show finished at a reasonable time for supper. It was not too late for young children - of which there were many - and it allowed me to navigate the somewhat, twisty roads of rural Lancashire in daylight. Maybe other companies and theatres should try an 18:00 start if they can.
The reason why Hfbrew was able to give me accurate casting for last Saturday is that her son dances with the company. She did not identify him and I won't guess but if he was dancing on Saturday he did very well. I wish him and the others in the company all the best. If he cares to read "For Emma" he will see that I was not the only one who was bowled over by Saturday's show.