Sunday, 24 June 2018

Birmingham Royal Ballet - Polarity and Proximity

Polarity & Proximity website trailer from Birmingham Royal Ballet on Vimeo.

Birmingham Royal Ballet Polarity and Proximity 23 June 2018, 14:30, Birmingham Hippodrome

Yesterday I saw the Birmingham Royal Ballet at its best.  It performed a triple bill consisting of Alexander Whitley's Kin, George Williamson's Embrace and Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room.  I had seen Kin before (see Vaut le Voyage - Birmingham Royal Ballet in Shrewsbury 25 May 2015) but not the other two.  I had, however, seen Williamson's Dawn Dances which the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company danced in their very first show in Amsterdam (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 25 Nov 2013) and later in London (see  And can they fly! The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company at Covent Garden 30 May 2014).

When I first saw Kin in Shrewsbury.   I wrote:
"Kin was well worth the 200 mile return journey which took three hours each way. It began with a low, almost inaudible, hum like an electric motor which I think must have been a cello as the curtain began slowly to rise. The stage was dimly lit and I could just about make out a solitary female dancer dressed in black. As she began to move I think I recognized Yijing Zhang. She then danced the most beautiful solo. Had it been poetry of words rather than dance I would have described as elegiac. The other dancers entered also in black. The music changed to a persistent throbbing. I wrote a lot of notes on my cast list not all of which I can decipher now as I had to scribble in the dark. I can just about make out "gyrations" and "chaînés". I remember the most hauntingly beautiful pas de deux by Yijing Zhang and William Bracewell. I also remember some great turns by the males towards the end. This morning, I can also make out the noun "virtuosity." 
I apologize for the superficiality of this description but yesterday was the first time I had seen a very beautiful, multi-layered work which I think will require more than one viewing to appreciate properly. Marion Tait referred to the work's beauty when she had to announce its cancellation last week. I seem to remember that she also used the adjective "special". If she did she was right. The music was by Phil Kline and I think this was the first time I had heard his work. It is not a pretty score but it sets the mood perfectly and it allowed plenty of scope for interpretation. The set (very plain with just two features) and the austere black costumes were by Jean-Marc Puissant. The lighting which cleverly matched the atmospheric score was by Peter Teigen. Whitley assembled those elements ingeniously."

I can't really add to that. There were, of course, different dancers. Tyrone Singleton was the male lead and Jenna Roberts the female. They were supported by Reina Fuchigami, Yvette Knight, Alys Shee, Tsu-Chao-Chu, Max Maslen, Lachlan Monaghan and Edivaldo Souza da Silva. I am a big fan of Singleton and was glad to see him in the lead role. Physically powerful but also sensitive he was ideally cast.  Kin is a short but intense work.  A good start to the programme.  

The ballet that brought me to Birmingham was Williamson's Embrace.  This is the first of a series of new works commissioned under the Ballet Now programme. This is a joint venture between the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Sadler's Wells to "support two commissions each year, helping a total of six artists – one choreographer, composer and designer for each commission. They will create work that will premiere at either BRB or Sadler's Wells in London" for each of the next 5 years. As Ted Brandsen and Cassa Pancho are on the commissioning committee and as Juanjo Arques is another of the first choreographers to be commissioned, I take a personal interest in the project.

In the programme, Williamson writes:
"I think everyone knows what it feels like to be an outsider at some point and for any young people, our path doesn't always feel the simplest or easiest. Growing up can be frightening. Equally, I think everyone also knows what it is to have friends support you in your worries and anxieties. I want people to come away understanding what it feels like to be "other" but also to accept and embrace it in a positive way, hence the title." 
A note on the cast sheet added :
"Embrace tells the story of one man's journey towards understanding and acceptance. Unable to recognize himself in the swirling masses that surround him. It takes the kindness of one and the love pf another for him to let go of who he thought he'd be and embrace who he really is." 
The work has three lead characters and what I would like to call a chorus.  No less that 4 artists dance the subject of the ballet, namely "He", "Self One", "Self Two" and "Self Three."  The other leads are "She" and "Him". The chorus (my terminology borrowed from Cathy Marston after The Suit and  Jane Eyre) are called "Them".

Brandon Lawrence dances "He" and the curtain rises with him lying in an enclosed space.  Lawrence is obviously different in the sense that he is the only member of the cast of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage but that is probably coincidental for the character he dances is different also in sexual orientation and takes some stick for that from "Them".  One pushes him around but most avoid him.  He finds support from "Him", that is to say Max  Maslen and "She" Yvette Knight.

It was only after seeing the ballet that I began to understand the roles of the first, second and third selves, Lachlan Monaghan, Haoliang Fen and Aitor Gaelnde.  With the benefit of ex post facto ratiocination I think they represented the selves They ordain for He.  At a superficial level most will remember the tender duets between Lawrence and Maslen.  Rare examples of same sex love on the stage. There are also conventional duets with Knight

Williamson created this work to a specially commissioned score by Sarah Kirkland Snider who is best known for her orchestral and chamber music. Although the music for Embrace is not buzzing in my head in the same way as Philip Glass's, I thought it was appropriate.  I was however even more impressed with Madeleine Girling's set and costume designs.  In particular, I liked her windows which reminded me of a multistory building - prompting the thought that He might be driven to crash through of them - and the translucent trousers and skirts.

The last work of the afternoon was the most exhilarating, the most exuberant, the most energetic and hence the most fun. Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room to Glass's score had us tapping our feet and almost dancing in the aisles. The curtain rose on Maureya Labowitz and Jade Heusen in what appear to be striped pyjamas. They are joined by the boys, Galende, Monaghan and Gus Payne. Off go Lenowitz and Hausen and on come Roberts and Lawrence.  It is more like a party than a ballet. The pyjamas give way to red tops and striped bottoms and vice versa, then red leotards and dressed with the men bear chested with belts of red around their trousers. Every possible jump, or turn you have ever seen was performed to crescendos of incessant music.  Fouettés followed by tours en l'air.  Though the theatre was less than full the applause was deafening.  Everyone seemed to leave the theatre with a bounce.

I had a great day in Birmingham yesterday which started with my friend Sarah Lambert meeting my train who introduced me to two of her dancing chums in the Bacchus bar. One of them, Charlotte, is  an accomplished theatre and live event designer and technician from Sheffield.  I told them about Powerhouse Ballet and invited them to class.  They in turn told me about their work with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and they invited me back to their show in two weeks time.

Birmingham is a long way from Holmfirth and takes almost the same time and costs nearly as much as a trip to London. A long way and a very long day. But yesterday was well worth the trek and looking around the auditorium I found that I was not the only Northerner to have made the trip.


The following remark has given rise to a mini-twitter storm:
"Brandon Lawrence dances "He" and the curtain rises with him lying in an enclosed space.  Lawrence is obviously different in the sense that he is the only member of the cast of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage but that is probably coincidental for the character he dances is different also in sexual orientation and takes some stick for that from "Them".  One pushes him around but most avoid him.  He finds support from "Him", that is to say Max  Maslen and "She" Yvette Knight."
I am not going to resile from those words but I shall explain them.  Early in the ballet "He" is jostled by a member of the chorus.  If you see an incident on the street where a person of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage is being jostled then you would draw only one conclusion.  On seeing jostling on the stage I drew that same conclusion.  Now remember that this ballet is about being an outsider and self-acceptance.  It is clear from the programme notes and indeed the choreography as the ballet unfolds that there is another different reason why He is an outsider. Even though it was  serendipitous it does not mean that a reaction on seeing what appears to be a theatrical representation of racial abuse should be discarded.  On the contrary it added to my appreciation of the ballet.

I do not see any basis upon which the above words could have been construed as an inference that Lawrence was cast as He otherwise than for his artistic qualities.  Any such suggestion is arrant nonsense.  Lawrence is an outstanding artist as I have acknowledged in all previous reviews.  No dancer becomes a soloist in one of the world's great ballet companies unless he or she is outstanding.

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