Choreographers: David Bintley and Juanjo Arqués
Music: Stephen Montague and Kate Whitley
Reviewer: Daljinder Johal
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Fire and Fury consists of two complementary but contrasting dances on power and politics, which intriguingly make us look to the past and future of ballet and much more.
The first, The King Dances with choreographer David Bintley, is freely based on Le Ballet de la nuit, 1653. Drastically shorter than the allegedly 12-hour original, Louis XIV appears as Apollo the Sun God. It’s a rôle assumed by Max Maslen here with an all-male ensemble. The second ballet, Ignite, translates the colour and ‘stillness’ of William Turner’s powerful painting, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.
The King Dances is structured in four watches. Although, more significantly, it is a ballet of contrasts and the motif of circles.
The First Watch sees the sun depart and La Nuit arrives with Tyrone Singleton giving a powerful performance. He commands authority in the midst of the four messieurs, who represent the structure of the royal court. Each sudden stomp of Singleton’s foot reminds us of his power and the inevitability of the night conquering daylight. The Second Watch introduces us to Maslen and his delicacy in comparison. There’s an innocence, perhaps nodding to Louis XIV’s tender age when assuming the throne. On the other hand, there’s a mournful longing sense to his steps, reflecting in the use of strings.
In the top right of the stage, a small circle of light appears with the silhouette of a woman. Maslen may be playing the Sun King, but with an arm outstretched towards this image, even he desires ‘the pleasures of the night’. Before long Yiking Zhang emerges as Selene, La Lune, and the two join in a truly beautiful pas de deux.
Lacking romance, this is a dance of harmonious opposites. Here, Zhang’s wispy dress enchants as it lends her an ethereal air to Maslen’s vitality. Even the soloist’s eyelashes are painted white alongside her silver body paint, emphasising her gentle playfulness. The pair exactly mirror each other’s movements at points to create a natural balance and chemistry that when disrupted, seems unnatural. Singleton returns to stage with the flash of red danger: while the Mesdames peek at the heavenly bodies in a reminder of Louis’ court, Singleton attempts to steal Selene away. It’s slightly frustrating that the number of dancers becomes confusing here, though the pair succeeds in fleeing. Nevertheless, in a turning point, the equilibrium of Le Roi Soleil and his court are equally upset as night terrors disturb the king’s mind.
We see hellish creatures and the devil menacing him. Because of their animalistic appearance complete with codpieces, they seem crude against his vulnerability in a white nightgown. Still, in clever choreography, they form shapes with their bodies to spin the helpless king while they unnerve the audience.
Nevertheless, nothing is more spectacular than the final watch. Le Roi Soleil emerges from a swirling circle in a magnificent costume of gold. Resplendent with a matching sun crown after a show of such vulnerability, this production celebrates the early history of the ballet.
Ignite also uses colour to its benefit with the dancers in light silk, red, orange and yellow jackets. It additionally considers oppositions but focuses on the collective rather than a (gendered) individual.
In the first of three sections, choreographer Juanjo Arqués excellently captures not only the chaotic entire body of a fire, but also how individual flames undulate in response to increased oxygen before being pulled back into the mass.
The production cleverly uses slanted mirrors to create the reflections apparent in Turner’s painting. At times, we’re almost tricked into thinking there’s more dancers onstage, reflecting the drama and turbulence in Turner’s work. As the dance reaches a crescendo it adds to the sense of the fire overwhelming the space.
The calmer second movement offers balance rather than the tension of The King Dances. Mathias Dingman and Delia Mathews play Sky and River in smoky blues and greys via clothing and lighting. In spite of their elegance, this duet lacks connection. Instead, a lovelier moment is when ensemble dancers in grey consecutively burn away en pointe like embers.
However, the final movement, Burn, is the most intriguing. Mathews remains onstage as the calm river flowing against the ensemble’s fire burns and the drum beats. Eventually, all dancers shed their jackets and line up to slowly turn and face the audience – suddenly conscious of its position as viewer. Arqués conveys the sense of finding order in the chaos of the piece as well as real-life opportunities for reinvention.
Fire and Fury may evoke negative connotations but dramatic change and emotion offer the chance to evolve. Whereas The King Dances lets us admire the past, Ignite makes us think about how we engage with art forms like ballet today and perhaps even the political.
Runs Until 6 October 2018 | Image: Andrew Ross