Tuesday 23 June 2015

A Special Ballet for a Special Day

Louis XIV as Appollo in Le Ballet de la Nuit
Source  Wikipedia

Birmingham Royal Ballet, The King Dances, Birmingham Hippodrome, 20 June 2016

As I noted In Praise of Bintley 21 June 2015, last Saturday was a very special day. It was the 25th anniversary of Birmingham Royal Ballet's move from London and the 20th anniversary of David Bintley's appointment as artistic director of that company. A special day deserves a special ballet and what could be more special than one inspired by Louis XIV's appearance as Apollo in Le Ballet de La Nuit.

We know quite a lot about that ballet as I indicated in The King Dances 23 May 2015. We have the score, pictures of the dancers and eye witness accounts of performances of Le Ballet de la Nuit. The ballet could easily be re-staged if anyone wanted to do that. However that wouldn't be great box office. The ballet went on all night and nearly all the roles were danced by men. In The King Dances Bintley has created a new ballet with a new score that lasts no more than 35 minutes. Nevertheless it gives modern audiences a very good idea of what Le Ballet de la Nuit must have been like.

The curtain rises to a set lit only by naked torches held by Les Messieurs: Yasuo Atsuji, Fergus Campbell, Matthias Dingman and Brandon Lawrence. This is the first watch from 18:00 to 21:00 as Night displaces Day. Night  represented by La Nuit (Ian Mackay) gradually assets his authority.

The second watch between 21:00 and midnight represents the pleasures of the night. The king (William Bracewell) enters and dances with the ladies.  But are Mesdames really ladies? From my seat towards the front of the stalls they seemed feminine enough but I knew that from my reading on Le Ballet de la Nuit not to mention the cast list and a tweet the night before from Ruth Brill that almost all the roles were danced by men. They turned out to Alexander Bird, Jonathan Caguioa, Tzu-Chao Chou and Max Maslen. So good was the dancing and indeed the wardrobe that I was confused.

The king then spots an image of Selene (the goddess of the moon) in the disc and that is the only bit that did not quite work for me. She came to life as Yijing Zhang and there was a lovely duet between them. That is the only female role in the ballet that is actually danced by a woman.

The scariest and most memorable portion of the ballet is the third watch between midnight and 03:00 where nightmares occur. First there are devils besporting themselves like monkeys. It is at this point that Stephen Montague's score is most effective for the music resembled the calls of cackling monkeys. The decision to commission a score from a modern composer was not appreciated by the lady who sat next to me and one of the subscribers to BalletcoForum wrote that the scariest three words in ballet were "specially commissioned score." Having listened to a little bit of Philidor on YouTube I am very glad that Bintley turned to Montague. His score may be 21st century but for me it worked.  The devils were danced by Kit Holder, Lachlan Monaghan, Benjamin Soerel and Oliver Till. They were followed by witches (Bird and Tzu-Chao), werewolves (Caguioa and Maslen) and finally Satan himself danced by Mackay.

The fourth watch between 03:00 and 06:00 when Day returns was such a relief. Day was represented by an enormous disc that parted to reveal the King as Apollo this time clad in gold. He was joined by the original torch bearers who transformed into Honour (Atsuji), Grace (Lawrence), Renown (Campbell) and Valour (Dingman). Night (Mackay) is revealed as Cardinal Mazarin. I am not sure of the significance of that. Mazarin was Louis XIV's chief minister during his minority and early adulthood and he was not well liked partly because he was Italian and partly because of his ruthlessness and personal extravagance. Le Ballet de la Nuit was danced in 1653 while the cardinal was still alive and at the heart of his power so I don't think his appearance can be regarded as satire.

Bintley is to be congratulated on this production. I had to give up a lot to see this ballet - English National Ballet's Choreographic and two new works by Tindall and Vigier who are two of my favourite young choreographers (see Three into Two won't go 20 June 2015). Today at class I was told by folk who had stayed in Leeds that the choreographic sharing was wonderful. I can't say that I didn't feel a tinge of regret when Gita told me that there were opportunities to meet Vigier and Hampson. But on Saturday the Hippodrome was probably the best place in the universe for a ballet fan and I think I would have kicked myself for ever had I not been there.

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