Music: Felix Mendelssohn and Frederick Chopin
Choreographer: Frederick Ashton
Reviewer: Laura Jayne Bateman
The repertoire of Frederick Ashton is one of the most revered in British ballet. Widely credited as the creator of a specifically ‘English’ genre of ballet, Ashton became director of The Royal Ballet in 1963 and presided over one of the company’s golden ages. In the opening to their 2016 season, Birmingham Royal Ballet chooses to honour his work with a delightful double bill of 1964’s The Dream and 1976’s A Month in the Country.
The Dream is a 60-minute retelling of William Shakespeare’s infamous comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Relocated from 16thCentury Athens to a late Victorian English forest, the ballet follows fairy king Oberon’s quarrel with his lover, Titania, over her young serving boy. Enraged by her defiance, he instructs his servant, Puck, to enchant her to fall in love with the next thing she sees, be it man or beast. Meanwhile, young lovers Hermia and Lysander have fled to the forest to escape the wrath of Hermia’s father, while Demetrius is being pursued by the love-struck Helena. Oberon orders Puck to enchant Demetrius to fall in love with Helena, but romantic chaos ensues when the lovers lay eyes on the wrong partners. After duels, catfights and comedic confusion, Puck sets affairs in order, the lovers are married, and Titania and Oberon are reunited.
Stunningly designed by Peter Farmer, The Dream is a pure balletic spectacle. Hermia and Helena are well-danced by Samara Downs and Laura Purkiss while Tom Rogers and Jamie Bond inject life into the often thankless roles of Lysander and Demetrius. Mathias Dingman delights as the mischievous Puck, effortlessly executing elfish, athletic turns and jumps. Nao Sakuma and Joseph Caley as the fairy king and queen occasionally lack convincing regal authority, but their pas de deux is charmingly done, and they are well supported by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artists as the fairy inhabitants of the forest.
The second part of the double bill is made up of A Month in the Country, adapted from Ivan Turgenev’s 1855 play of the same name. Distilling five acts into 40 minutes, the ballet follows Beliaev, a young tutor, as he arrives at the country home of a wealthy Russian family. Natalia Petrovna, a bored society wife, Vera, her precocious ward, and Katia, an inquisitive maid, all proceed to become infatuated with him; Beliaev is eventually sent away when their passions are discovered, and the three women are forced to return to the stagnancy of Russian country life.
The designs from Julia Trevelyan Oman are once again outstanding, vividly conjuring the opulence of 19thCentury Russia. Delia Mathews is first-rate as the unfulfilled Natalia; she is technically superb while beautifully conveying Natalia’s yearning for life and excitement beyond her husband’s estate. She is well supported by the excellent Karla Doorbar as Vera, a girl on the verge of womanhood, and the energetic Yvette Knight as Katia, the excitable maid. Iain Mackay is rather bland as Beliaev, particularly when matched with the enigmatic Mathews, but this is a lively and atmospheric piece that is charmingly performed by the eight dancers.
Frederick Ashton’s choreography is notoriously challenging for the modern ballet dancer: the fluid musicality of his work can only be embodied by the most lyrical of dancers. Although several performances fall a little flat, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double bill is overall a well-executed evening of work, with the strength of the female dancers, in particular, providing real moments of joy.
Runs until 20 February 2016 | Image: Bill Cooper