Choreographer: David Bintley
Music: Carl Davis
Reviewer: Helen Tope
Aladdin, with its magic Genie and flying carpet, may not seem the most obvious choice for a ballet. But in a brand new production, Birmingham Royal Ballet makes a compelling case as to why we should take this pantomime favourite much more seriously.
The challenge Birmingham Royal Ballet has is in the reshaping of such a familiar narrative. While it’s fashionable to find fault with Disney, the 1992 film cast Aladdin and the Genie in such an image that to get an audience to imagine these characters any other way is not only a daunting task, failure, by comparison, is always a risk.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin addresses this problem head-on by going back to the original tale, using stagecraft to bring the magic to life. The clever use of the stage brings us back to the childlike joy of being told a good story really well. By keeping it (relatively) simple, Birmingham Royal Ballet has produced a colourful, vibrant ballet filled with romance and adventure.
While the story-telling remains true to the original, even down to the character names, this production is not afraid to have a little fun. David Bintley’s choreography is fiercely energetic, crafting bold, sculptural lines. The dance performed by The Djinn of the Lamp is an outstanding example of how Bintley meets tradition with innovation. Aladdin puts just enough modernity into the mix; the Chinese dragon brought on as wedding entertainment rolls around the stage like the family dog.
The characterisation of Aladdin is perfectly judged. Mathias Dingman performs with a boyish charm that has you rooting for him from the very start. In this respect, Birmingham Royal Ballet trumps Disney. In the animation, the hero reads as flat and one-dimensional. Here, Aladdin is no street-rat, but a boy living on the edge of society, winning or losing moment by moment.
What the ballet also does, rather cleverly, is to redress the balance between the two lead characters. The Djinn appears in key scenes but never overshadowing the lead. It allows normally marginalised characters to step forward too; the Princess (Momoko Hirata) is a clever, resourceful woman, and no-one’s decorative object. The pairing of The Sultan (Jonathan Payn) and Aladdin’s mother (Marion Tait) is inspired, rounding out a story that is bolstered by a strong supporting cast.
But the star of the show is the music. Carl Davis’ score is richly evocative, layering traditional instruments with the more usual orchestral sound. The music is filmic in its ambition, steering us through the action, punctuating heightened moments with a pure hit of emotion. In the creation of this incarnation of Aladdin, the music came first and watching the ballet, it makes absolute sense. The score is fully realised; you are never lost because the music tells you exactly where you are. There are many reasons to see Aladdin, but the music would be at the top of that list.
At the heart of this production is a tale about treasure: not only lost and found but what we value most of all. Aladdin is a narrative we know so well because its concerns are timeless. This is a ballet with plenty of sparkle, but behind the dazzle, there is a warning; not everything that glitters is gold.
Runs until Saturday 28 October | Image: Bill Cooper