Friday, 1 November 2019
Birmingham Royal Ballet and Ballet Black's Mixed Programme at Sadler's Wells
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Birmingham Royal Ballet and Ballet Black (A Brief Nostalgia, The Suit and Nine Sinatra Songs) Sadler's Wells 30 Oct 2019 at 19:30
As a fully paid-up Friend of Ballet Black and a big fan of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Cathy Marston, I decided to nip down to London on Wednesday to see their combined triple bill. I say "nipped" with some caution. It was easy enough to get down to the Smoke but coming back was quite a different matter. The East Coast mainline has deteriorated considerably since its re-nationalization by LNER and it is now a shambles. It took an hour for the 23:30 from King's Cross to amble from Doncaster to Leeds by way of Pontefract and goodness knows where else with the result that I arrived home at 04:00 yesterday morning.
Happily, the show made it all worthwhile. I arrived at Sadler's Wells just in time for a talk by Kit Holder of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Tom Harrold who had composed the score for the first work, A Brief Nostalgia, and Cassa Pancho, founder and artistic director of Ballet Black. I am very glad that I did because Tom's talk prepared me for A Brief Nostalgia and helped me appreciate it properly. He explained that he was a Scottish composer living in Manchester and this commission had been his first work for the theatre. The ballet was a collaboration between the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Queensland Ballet. The companies had chosen Jack Lister, to choreograph the work and Tom described their long-distance collaboration. Lister had wanted to express a mood that is expressed in Portuguese by the word saudade. Deborah Jones's programme note described it as "a delicate, complicated feeling that has melancholy and pain built in but also has room for the beauty of remembering emotions, people or objects of personal value." She added that an American academic had offered "a word for 'the presence of absence," as an apt translation.
In the questions and answers that followed, a member of the audience asked why the ballet was entitled "A Brief Nostalgia". I guess he meant why a ballet addressing such a nuanced and complex topic should have been given such a prosaic title. Tom could not really answer the question but warned that it was quite a "dark ballet". "Oh dear!" I thought to myself as I remembered what The Suit is all about. "Happen we are in for a right barrel of laughs."
The piece when it came to be performed was not too bad. It was certainly not as miserable as a marital breakdown and a suicide. For a start, I liked the score and I was even more impressed with the lighting design for shadows on the sets exaggerated the dancers' line and movements. There were also some dramatic moments such as when the cast dashed in and froze in arabesque. It was the lighting which actually punctuated the phases of the ballet. It began at ground level while the later scenes lit up the space above the artists' heads.
There were six pairs of dancers: Brandon Lawrence with Delia Matthews, Matthias Dingman with Maureya Lebowitz, Tzu-Chao Chou with Momoko Hirata, Max Maslen with Samara Downs, Lachlan Monaghan with Alys Shee and Kit Holder with Beatrice Parma. The only downside with the lighting is that it was hard to make out who was who on stage. The only one that I could identify positively before the reverence was Brandon Lawrence and that is only because I have seen a lot of him lately. They all danced well and richly merited the applause with even a few Russian style growls.
The work that I had come primarily to see was The Suit. I am a big fan of Ballet Black both for their outstanding artistry but also for their work in bringing ballet to every section of our community including those that have not been represented in ballet proportionately. I am also a fan of Cathy Marston having seen her Jane Eyre and Victoria for Northern Ballet and Snowblind for the San Francisco Ballet recently and, of course, The Suit at least four times. Of her works that I have seen live, The Suit is by far the best in my humble opinion. However, I have seen a lot of videos of her work in Berne which I should like to see on stage.
It is one respect a very depressing work. It starts happily enough with Philomom, the husband, José Alves, and Matilda, his wife, Cira Robinson in marital bliss. The alarm clock sounds and Philemon has to go to work. He gets up, shaves, showers and dons a suit with the rest of the cast playing washbasins, showers, wardrobes and mirrors. He says goodbye to his wife still in her nightie and absent-mindedly leaves his briefcase behind. The next few minutes show his commute to work. He meets all sorts of folk such as stylish ladies like Isabella Coracey and Sayaka Ichikawa, one of whom earns a wolf whistle. and little old ladies bent double over their walking sticks such as Marie-Astrid Mence, in real life probably the youngest members of the troupe. Suddenly, it dawns on him that has left his case behind. He returns to the house and finds it is not all it should be. Matilda is still in bed but she is not alone.
Philip Feeney's music changes dramatically from regular rhythms to sounds more akin to sirens. He freezes. His home is shattered. Momentarily he is broken. When he recovers his composure he is a changed man. Matilda may have deceived him but she must have been bored looking after the home while Philemon was in the city. When good-looking Simon, Mchuthuzeli November, paid her attention it would have required a lot of resolve to resist him.
Simon had darted out of the house in his underwear leaving his suit behind. It was through that suit that Philemon exacted his terrible revenge. For the rest of the marriage, he tortured his wife with the garment forcing her to treat it as an honoured guest even taking it for walks around the neighbourhood. Everyone would have known that she had erred. She felt scorn and shame. For a brief moment, there seems a to be a chance of reconciliation but his anger gets the better of him and he shoves her away.
She wanders the home desolate and then spots the tie. She wraps it around her neck connecting the end to a beam. There then follows one of the most chilling scenes possible in theatre. That beautiful woman perishes before our eyes and then rests lifeless. I had seen that ballet four times and know that Cira springs back to life for the curtain call but I can't help shaking and feel the tears welling up in my eyes. No, this is not a comfortable ballet to watch. In fact, it is shocking. But it is compelling watching.
We needed cheering up and that is just what we got with Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs. Each of the girls is beautifully dressed and coiffed wearing heels instead of pointe shoes. Karla Doorbar who accompanied James Barton in his last performance with the company wore the most scrumptious costume. Before the show Kit Holder told the audience that this was to be Barton's last appearance with the company and invited us to give him an extra burst of applause which we did. I was sad for a while but then overjoyed to learn that he has not retired but is on his way to Glasgow to join Scottish Ballet. Readers will tire of my saying that that was the first company that I got to know and love. They will know that I am an even bigger fan of Scottish Ballet than I am of BRB, Far from saying goodbye I look forward to seeing more of him in his new company.
I have never really listened much to Frank Sinatra but I have heard a lot of his music in lifts, waiting rooms and on the telephone waiting to be put through to the right extension in the course of a lifetime. There is something comforting in the banal and the artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet made us forget the horror of the previous piece with their wit, their charm and their virtuosity. Although the ballet is called Nine Sinatra Songs we actually got eight for My Way is played twice. The first time with three couples - Rachele Pizzillo, Emma Price and Yaoquian Shang with Rory Mackay, Edivaldo Souza da Silva and Alexander Yap. The second time was the finale with the whole cast.
I have followed Ballet Black for as long as I have kept this blog and seen them grow. Watching them perform in one of the world's premier dance auditoriums with de Valois's foundation I thought they had come of age, Interestingly one of the audience members had reminded me of their appearance of the pyramid stage of Glasto. That must have earned them a lot of fame but I think the shows at The Hippodrome and Sadler's Wells would have given them even more kudos.
Later this month Ballet Black will perform Pendulum, Click! and Ingoma in Oxford, Stratford, Leeds and York in the next few weeks, I described that triple bill as stunning when I saw it at The Barbican earlier this year. I recommend it strongly.