Choreography: David Bintley
Conductor: Paul Murphy
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Aladdin is a new production of the ballet David Bintley first created for the National Ballet of Japan in 2008, using a score (also slightly reworked) written by well-known film and TV composer Carl Davis. The story is familiar from the Thousand and One Nights and the many pantomime productions. This version avoids too many pantomime elements and any Disneyfication, but Aladdin is a fairly simple tale. Bintley himself has observed that Aladdin is “possibly the least ‘deep’ ballet” he has made.
Some of the greatest classical ballets in the still-performed repertoire are guilty of simplicity and silliness. How does Aladdin compare? The opening scene is the kind that the Birmingham Royal Ballet normally excels at – a bustling market full of traders, while Aladdin and his two friends create a modicum of mayhem and antagonise the palace guards. However Aladdin doesn’t quite deliver the usual satisfying BRB opening act. The biggest issue with Aladdin is nothing to do with the production itself: it’s the music. Carl Davis’s score isn’t lacking in hummable melodies but it is sugary, suggestive of film and TV themes and fails to create much sense of mood or place. The setting is already an odd mix of Chinese and North African, as is the original, and Davis’s music does little to clarify this.
Aladdin contains a certain amount of adventure but it lacks any real drama or danger. BRB are usually masters of creating a dramatic, lavish and compelling Act I but this rather misses the mark. The dancers don’t seem entirely settled within the space. There are too many changes of scene. Dick Bird’s sets don’t quite cohere. The market looks fine with its extravagant layers of bright hanging cloths, but the desert is too impressionistic – although the Desert Winds are nicely costumed – and the cave itself is almost too modern, with its dramatic LED stalagmites and stalactites and Geiger-esque staircase. The cave scene is problematic, as Bintley has opted to create a setting of Jewels – a series of dances that embody the treasure horded within. So, we are treated to Onyx and Pearls, Gold and Silver, Sapphire, Emeralds, Rubies – nicely danced by two of the company’s best soloists, Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis – and effervescent Diamonds. But Davis’s score doesn’t push Bintley to create really distinctive identities for these pieces and the whole section puts the narrative on hold, although it’s not without its pleasures. It also exposes the lack of any real connection with Aladdin himself. Two more scene changes follow before the Act is done. It’s with the arrival of Princess Badr al-Budur (Natasha Oughtred) that the ballet finally starts to shine.
Act II was much more satisfying. The sets were lovelier, the lighting was more evocative – the narrative moved on, the choreography was more interesting. Chi Cao (Aladdin) started to impress in his duo work with Oughtred. The group choreography of the court scene was hugely effective and the Chinese Dragon (James Barton and Matthias Dingman) and the Djinn of the Lamp were delightful and brought some much needed energy.
The final Act was more satisfying than the first and less so than the second. The slight and slightly baffling final plot denouement was followed by some fine duos by Cao and Oughtred, with characterful and effective reprises by most of the rest of the cast. The finale was bright and optimistic and sparkier than the opening scenes but you were left with a feeling that not very much had happened, apart from a minor dispute over the ownership of the lamp and Aladdin becoming wealthy.
There are some good performances. Marion Tait physically transforms herself yet again with a witty and engaging turn as Aladdin’s mother. Tyrone Singleton and Jonathan Payn are effective as the Mahgrib and the Sultan, and Natasha Oughtred shines in a company that at times looked off their game and under-rehearsed. Chi Cao progressively succeeded in transforming Aladdin from mischievous urchin to royal prince, and Tzu-Chao Chou was fun and impressive as the Djinn of the Lamp.
There is a level on which Aladdin works reasonably well as large-staged entertainment, but there is a big difference between ‘entertaining’ and satisfying. Aladdin lacks genuine thrills or an emotional arc, and the production itself seems to have too much too do with too many sets, costume styles, changes and special effects. The audience reaction was enthusiastic but Aladdin lacks magic, despite that genie. Nice second act though.