Sunday, 21 February 2016

Ashton's Double Bill

Joseph Noel Paton: The Quarrel between Oberon and Titania
Source Wikipedia

Birmingham Royal Ballet, Ashton Double Bill, Birmingham Hippodrome, 20 Feb 2016

In Looking Forward to 2016 (30 Dec 2015) I wrote:
"To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in 1964 Sir Frederick Ashton created The Dream. Antoinette Sibley was Titania and Anthony Dowell her Oberon. The Dream was one of the most beautiful ballets that Ashton ever created. Here is a snippet of the original production and another of a more recent performance by American Ballet Theatre with Alessandra Ferri and Ethan Stiefel. The ballet was part of a triple bill of works inspired by Shakespeare. The others were Kenneth MacMillan's Images of Love and Sir Robert Helpmann's Hamlet. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death the Birmingham Royal Ballet will revive this iconic work at the Hippodrome between the 17 and 20 Feb 2016. If you see only one ballet this year this is the one you should not miss.
Last night I saw that work with Nao Sakuma as Titania and Joseph Caley as Oberon.  As the orchestra played the final pas de deux I found myself rooting for a tissue for I cannot help associating that music not with Mendelssohn but with Sibley who remains the ballerina that I most admire (Sibley 17 Dec 2013).

It was that association that attracted me to Birmingham last night but it was also the reason for the production's only flaw. Sakuma, who is Japanese, was made to wear a blonde wig so that she looked (from row P of the stalls at any rate) just like Sibley.  That is not necessary and it is not healthy. There is no reason why Titania should be North European (after all the changeling boy is supposed to be Indian) and Sakuma is a magnificent dancer in her own right. There cannot be many members of the audience who remember Sibley and Dowell as I do.  There are not many snippets of their performances of The Dream on YouTube.  Even I wanted to see an interpretation by a modern ballerina and premier danseur noble - not an ersatz reproduction of a performance from another age.

Putting that grumble to one side I still enjoyed the show. Caley and Sakuma danced well, as one would expect. Matthias Dingman danced Puck with his usual wit and spirit. Yijing Zhang was a charming Hermia and Yasuo Atsuji a gallant Lysander - at least for most of the time. As for the other mortals Ana Albutashvili was an amusing but likeable Helena and Tyrone Singleton a haughty Demetrius. The rustics were hilarious - particularly Jonathan Caguioa as Bottom.  I should add that his role requires some pointe work which is rarely demanded of male dancers.  As for the rest of the cast I loved the fairies - the corps as well as those who danced Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Moth and Mustardseed. It was a delight to see Farmer's designs again and Mendelssohn's overture always leaves me wobbly at the knees.

The second part of the programme was A Month in the Country which was created in 1976 - several years after Ashton had ceased to be the principal choreographer. I missed it when it was first performed. In fact yesterday was the first time I ever saw the work and I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Based on Turgenev's A Month in the Country the ballet creates three very strong female roles:  Natalia Petrovna the lady of a country house somewhere in the Russian countryside who is bored with everything about the country including her husband, her ward Vera and the housemaid Katia. Their routine is disturbed by the arrival of a young student Beliaev who brings a kite for Natalia's son Kolia. All three women fall for Beliaev which leads to an almighty row between Natalia and Vera as a result of which Beliaev is sent packing (in the nicest possibe way) by Natalia's husband.

Yesterday, Samara Downs danced Natalia, Jamie Bond Beliaev, Laura Day Vera and Yiijing Zhang Katia. Tzu-Chao Chou was a convincing juvenile and Rory Mackay danced the husband well. The score was John Lanchbery's arrangement of Chopin which also included an earworm - in this case, Chopin's variations on a theme from Don Giovanni. Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs were breathtaking - particularly the drapes immediately after the curtain rises which reminded me a little bit of Leon Bakst.  Altogether, a production that I look forward to seeing again.

For some reason or other the theatre was far from full which is disappointing for a performance by a company of the calibre of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Although there were some cheers and bravos - mainly from me - and one or two people on their feet - there were not all that many curtain calls. It was a good show and BRB deserved more appreciation. I am sure they will do better when they bring Romeo and Juliet to the Lowry.  I may be wrong but it may be that audiences were put off by Titania's blonde wig. After all it seems to have generated some discussion on BalletcoForum.

As a Mancunian I get bored by the pretensions of Brummies - often endorsed by Londoners who have been to neither Birmingham nor Manchester - that Birmingham is the second city - notwithstanding the latest census returns that the population of Greater Manchester now exceeds that of the West Midlands. However, I have to concede that Birmingham has a world class ballet company and a wonderful home for it in the Hippodrome. Yesterday I tried the theatre's Circle Restaurant. While I found it a tad expensive - especially compared to the Chinese and other East Asian restaurants that surround the theatre - I was delighted to be served Lancashire hotpot. There are not too many places where that dish is on the menu even in Manchester and I have certainly never eaten it at the Palace or Lowry.

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