Jeanne-Marie LePrince de Beaumont's Beauty and the Beast has more than a little in common with Cinderella. It is also a story about a beautiful young woman who is put upon by her somewhat unattractive elder sisters and let down by her father - I suppose that's also true of King Lear now I come to think of it - who after lots of trials and tribulations also finds her prince. From a female point of view the story is slightly more palatable in that it is the man rather than the woman who has to break free of his circumstances. Cinderella is at least human even if she is a scullery maid whereas the beast is sub-human.
The other respect in which Beauty and the Beast shares something in common with Cinderella is that it has never really taken off either as a ballet or a fairy tale in the way that other stories have. It is even Cinderella to Cinderella which is well established in so many companies' repertoires with its wonderful Prokoviev score (even though David Nixon discarded it in his version of the ballet (see Northern Ballet's Cinderella - a Triumph! 27 Dec 2013)). Having said that many companies have a version of Beauty and the Beast though they are all different (see the list as it stood in 1997 in the programme notes for Ballet Met's version by David Nixon). The first one that I saw was Peter Darrell's with its score by Thea Musgrave shortly after Western Theatre Ballet moved to Scotland. Three years ago I saw David Nixon's for Northern Ballet which I reviewed in my IP Yorkshire blog ("Ballet and Intellectual Property - my Excuse for reviewing 'Beauty and the Beast'" 31 Dec 2011 IP Yorks). Most recently I saw Ballet Cymru's in Lincoln ("Diolch yn Fawr - Ballet Cymru's Beauty and the Beast" 24 June 2014).
I saw Birmingham Royal Ballet's version at The Lowry one and a half times on the 26 and 27 Sept 2014. The reason for the half is that I rolled up at the box office shortly before 19:30 on Friday night only to be told that the performance had started at 18:30. Grrrrrrrrrrr. Nobody had thought to tell me when I booked the seat by telephone the day before. If I'd been the woodsman with powers of transmutation I would have turned the person responsible into a very inferior life form if not a block of stone. Not that I could have made it at 18:30 even if I had known of the early start because some of us actually have to do some work occasionally even on Fridays. To be fair, the box office did offer to swap my ticket for the matinee but I had arrived dolled up in a dress having driven 25 miles across the Pennines and I considered it somewhat perverse to drive 25 miles back again just because the Lowry had not seen fit to tell me, and I'd not seen fit to ask, what time it started. So I watched what was left of the show and bought a ticket for the following matinee.
On its web site the BRB promised us Brandon Lawrence, Maureya Lebowitz (whom I had admired as Lise in Fille (see "Fille bien gardée - Nottingham 26 June 2014" 27 June 2014)) and Ruth Brill who are all favourites of mine. Now we did get Ruth Brill as one of the sisters but the Beast was Yasuo Atsuji and Beauty by Momoko Hirata. Now I make no complaint at that cast change because those guys were good and they danced beautifully together but it is a bit disconcerting to see a completely different pair of principals from the ones you had expected as the curtain rises. The day before I had seen two other favourites, Elisha Willis and Tyrone Singleton, as Beauty and the Beast who were also splendid in those roles but in a very different way. I can now understand why folk like Janet McNulty sit through the same show night after night (and sometimes matinee and evening on the same day) with different casts and never seem to tire of it. One dancer whom I saw on both Friday and Saturday was Marion Tait who danced the grandmother. She has been dancing for as long as I have been following dance and she is wonderful. I loved the wedding scene especially when she used her walking stick as a weapon.
One of the strengths of the Birmingham Royal Ballet is that its sets and costumes are sumptuous and this production was no exception. The action moves from a comfortable town house to a forest and from a forest to the Beast's castle. There is some delightful robotry going on as wine glasses are replenished and chairs recline without any human intervention. Philip Prowse was the designer who put that all together
I was not quite so enthusiastic about Glen Buhr's score at first but it grew on me the second time round. The waltz in the ball at the Best's castle at the start of Act II in the video above was one bit that I really liked. There was a lot of percussion but not a large orchestra was required. They had more than enough room to spread themselves out in The Lowry's already roomy orchestra pit.
There was some gorgeous choreography particularly the final pas de deux between Belle and Beastie after he is changed back into human form. Bintley is the closest modern choreographer to Ashton. He uses the same lifts and flourishes. That is why I like the BRB so much.
"Now", asked my awkward friend, "you've seen four Beauties and the Beast which one do you like best?" Well I like them all but in different ways. Musgrave's for the music. Birmingham's for the sets and costumes but also Bintley's choreography. Nixon's for the last Act. Ballet Cymru's for its spirit. BRB's Beauty moves on to the Hippodrome tonight and if tickets are still available I'd gladly recommend it.