Birmingham Royal Ballet: Into the Music – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music: Benjamin Britten, Mikael Karlsson and Ludwig van Beethoven

Choreographers: Jiří Kylián, Morgann Runacre-Temple and Uwe Scholz

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Into the Music is a collection of three pieces, each new to the company’s repertory, that display very different artistic styles.

Forgotten Land uses Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da requiem Op20 to focus on a sense of belonging, and of loss. Visually, John Macfarlane’s design is inspired by the works of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, most especially Dance of Life, a frieze showing the same woman at different stages of her life. Munch’s use of colour to represent different ages comes through in the couples whose pas de deux make up the bulk of the piece.

But the biggest inspiration comes from Britten’s score, performed (as all the pieces in the evening) with pin-sharp clarity by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Grief and joy come in waves, Jiří Kylián’s choreography in lockstep with Britten. Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton lead the six couples with movement that is in perfect synchrony with each other. Their precision shows up when other dancers, Miki Mizutani and Mathias Dingman, occasionally fail to get the same in their own pas de deux, but all couples hold the attention and wring the emotion from Kylián’s work.

And yet, despite all this, the best moment in the piece comes right at the beginning, before Britten’s score even kicks in. Their backs to the audience, the ensemble moves back and forth, occasionally breaking form, like wind-tossed waves crashing onto a bleak Scandinavian beach.

Things couldn’t more different with the night’s second piece. Hotel is a new commission that really pushes the use of on-stage video. In a grey, concrete hotel corridor, Machiavellian hotel concierges greet a succession of guests. As the guests enter their rooms, various handheld and CCTV cameras give us voyeuristic looks inside. The idea doesn’t reveal much in the way of dance work, but it adds an effective air of sinister mystery.

The camera work continues with the dancing in front of the set. A camera on a handheld gimbal is able to zoom into elements that we wouldn’t normally be able to see. Conversely, though, the camera operator’s presence within the action distracts as much as its video output appeals. Bringing on a full-size camera on a tripod which physically gets in the way of seeing dancers except on a video screen feels like one distraction too many.

Other video work is much stronger, as performers who dance along one of the set’s two walls are projected onto the other, allowing the other half of the ensemble to interact with the projections in ways that feel truly innovative. Coupled with a bizarre, hilarious turn by Matilde Rodrigues as an ostrich-like demon with an arm for a head, Hotel is always immensely watchable. Coupled with Mikael Karlsson’s bluesy score, it is an impressive new work.

The Seventh Symphony is the final, longest piece of the trilogy, and feels like a step back in time. Uwe Scholz’s design and choreography, created in 1991, feel like a return to pre-widescreen television. The set, triangular panels painted in wavy lines in front of a plain, uplit cyclorama, give a feeling of 1980s Blue Peter.

The choreography also feels slightly dated, too: the men are often reduced to supporting their female partners as they leap and pirouette, or to move (and, on occasion, drag) their bodies around like possessions. Compared to the evening’s previous works, it feels like this is a form of choreography that the ballet world is moving away from in newer compositions. But with that retro styling comes bucketloads of charm. Coupled with a full, majestic performance of Beethoven’s seventh symphony by the Sinfonia, Scholz’s choreography enhances one of classical music’s great works.

As a collective, the three pieces that comprise Into the Music form a powerful statement for how director Carlos Acosta sees the future of Birmingham Royal Ballet. With these new works added to the company’s repertory, it suggests a varied, layered, and visually arresting future lies ahead.

Continues until 5 November 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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