Venue: Theatre Royal Plymouth
Choreography: David Bintley
Music: Glenn Buhr
Reviewer: Helen Tope
The ballet begins with a familiar scene. Belle stands at the top of a bookcase, mired deep in words. She is the original bookish heroine; an outsider in her own family. Her father is a ship merchant, deep in debt – and the bailiffs are called. While Belle’s sisters – Fiere and Vanite – paw through what is to be taken, Belle comforts her father.
Cochon, a wealthy townsman, with an eye for at least one of Belle’s sisters, offers to pay the old man’s debts. The merchant’s ship is then spotted, and he leaves to salvage his fortune. He asks his daughters what present they would like him to bring back. Fiere and Vanite opt for dresses and jewels – Belle prefers a simple rose.
On his way, a storm descends. After being separated from his men, and attacked by thieves, the merchant takes refuge in a castle. Finding a chair, wine and good food, he settles in for the night. As he is about to leave the next morning, he remembers Belle’s request for a rose. He plucks a beautiful white flower, and a monstrous Beast emerges from the garden.
Furious at the intrusion, the Beast learns that the merchant has three daughters. In return for sparing the merchant’s life, the Beast demands that the youngest daughter must come and live with him. The merchant agrees.
Belle goes to the castle, spirited there by a flock of crows, and she finds she is the guest of a Beast, half-man, half-animal. Once a handsome Prince, wild for hunting, the Beast has been cursed by a woodsman after an act of cruelty. To lift the curse, the Beast must find true, unconditional love. It’s a big ask.
It’s a story we think we know, but the answer in how to avoid comparisons with Disney is simple. Go darker – much darker. The singing candlesticks are out; brooding menace is most definitely in.
Birmingham Royal Ballet digs into the morality of this tale to give the story a roundness, and the characterisation is neatly done. Cesar Morales as the Beast gives us blistering rage – aimed at the world, but mostly at himself. Belle (Momoko Hirata) dances with a determination that prefigures the gutsy modern heroine. Her ability to read between the lines serves her well, as she can see the remorse the Beast feels, even if the mirror doesn’t reflect it. The ballet plays satiric notes too – in the sisters’ would-be society wedding, with airs and graces stripped aside, we can see the animal within as the guests scoff treats like pigs at a trough.
This is a production where every detail counts. The application of light and shade by Mark Jonathan creates a gothic effect very different to the brightly-lit stages of classical ballets. Dancers emerge from the shadows, others step into the brief illumination of a spotlight. It creates an impressionistic air that immediately draws you in.
Beauty and the Beast is a ballet unafraid to experiment outside the perimeters of classical dance. The choreography by David Bintley – angular, scooping lines, striking visual imagery – gives the story a fresh perspective. This is dance, from the inside out. Here, psychology is just as important as physicality. The growing passion between Beast and Belle is undeniable. Where Disney only hints, this company leaves you in no doubt what’s going on.
As much as there is an appetite for the classics, Birmingham Royal Ballet understands the need for innovation. Beauty and the Beast has the style of contemporary, with the scope and grandeur of classical. It’s a tricky balance to master, but there is nothing lacking.
This is a ballet with a lot to say about how we perceive ourselves and others. Image and expectation – they are both brought to task by this clever production. Nothing is quite what it seems, and while that can be terrifying, it also leads to adventures beyond imagination. To give a well-worn story new depth and shine is a laudable aim, and Birmingham Royal Ballet reaches it with ease. It doesn’t matter how many times we hear it – Beauty and the Beast is a story worth the re-telling.
Runs until Saturday 9 March 2019 | Image: Contributed