Penguin Cafe Mixed Programme – Birmingham Hippodrome

Composer (Concerto) – Dmitri Shostakovich
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan

Composer (Still Life Penguin) – Simon Jeffes
Choreography – David Bintley

Composer (Elite Syncopations) – Scott Joplin & Others
Choreography – Kenneth MacMillan

Reviewer: John Kennedy

The opening performance, Concerto, in three movements, is set within an explosion of bold, expansive monochromatic space: a brilliant white backdrop framed by monolithic, angular vertical black slabs – Bauhaus has just gate-crashed the ballet.

All three movements allow solo pianist, Jonathan Higgins and the Sinfonia, delicious opportunities to tease every nuance of Shostakovich’s barely concealed love-affair with Aaron Copeland’s rodeo/hoedown gaiety. The second movement’s pas de deux by way of contrast is shamelessly romantic. Mustard, ochre, saffron and chrome-yellow costumes are lent resplendent vigour by radiant, subtly shifting, sunlight. The closing movement climaxes with a synchronised celebration of suggestive mass-rally gymnastic grandeur. With vigour and vitality, they sing their youthful bodies electric.


Fancy being seduced by svelte, uber-saucy cocktail-waiter penguins along with an insistent, persistent but utterly loveable impertinent insect – a Humboldt’s Hog-nosed flea to be precise? Perhaps The Ecstasy Of The Dancing Fleas is Bintley’s angst displacement revenge against Tyrollean Morris-Dancers.

What of erotic, exotic zebras? Or debonair Manhattan cocktail lounge louche lovelies in tuxes and glittering gowns fawning before a seductive, gender-confused ram in a ballgown. Welcome to BRB’s enchanting, blithe-spirited carnival of the animals – anthropomorphic eccentric, eco-centrically sincere but tree-hugger lecture-lite, Still Life at the Penguin Café. The self-deprecating Still being their little tease – they like that sort of thing.

David Bentley and composer, the late, Simon Jeffe’s collaboration ever enchants with its subversive ‘World Barn Music’ flamboyance. A suggestive, fin-de-siècle fading Venetian piano nobile setting establishes the opening celebrations. Dapper cocktail-waiter penguins glide with elegant aloof and infectious, sashay sass. Tyrone Singleton’s Southern Cape Zebra, priapic proud, with Homeric crested mane and harem of stiletto-strutting potential mates, remains as primal iconic as the poster-cute penguins. A direction niggle here – his shocking, sudden death, enacted upstage left is an awkward sight-line anomaly that denies many a full appreciation of what is happening.

All manner of animal menagerie magic has still to unfold – which suggests that whatever cheese David Bintley eats before going to bed needs be reclassified as a controlled substance. Penguin Café rightly remains a classic of the BRB repertoire – it mugs the soul with gracious bodily charm and holds the heart to impossible ransom.

Elite Syncopations has the band upstage and led by piano/conductor, Matthew Drury. Set in a stripped-down Hollywood casting studio, that’s part honky-tonk sleaze with attitude, come Marathon Dance end of pier desperation dive, dancers audition through a medley of twelve ragtime vignettes. They are snap-shot pithy and witty with both elements of self-parody and hussy-strutting. The latter exemplified in Delia Mathews’ Calliope Rag with her ‘Who the damn hell does that dame think she is?’ outrageous sexuality. As for Ian Spurling’s costumes, it may be deduced he dribbled some psychotropic substances into a giant candy-jar and fired them from a cannon into the BRB design studios. Not so much a riot of colour, more a retinal coup d’etat. A feast for the eyes where gluttony is a virtue – BRB are up to their neck sinews in wickedness again.

Runs until 30 September 2017 | Image: Birmingham Royal Ballet

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