Adapt and die

David Bintley's faithful rendering of Far from the Madding Crowd for the Birmingham Royal Ballet is yet another bland retreat from innovation in dance. By Sophie Constanti
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The Independent Culture
Given that the idea of turning Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd into a ballet first occurred to David Bintley some four years ago, it would seem unduly cynical to accuse him of cashing in on the current vogue for "adaptation art". Indeed, long before the recent outbreak of Austen mania, novels and plays were adapted for television or cinema, and films transposed to the stage.

Now, in Bintley's Far from the Madding Crowd, we have the ballet of a book that was made into a film almost 30 years ago. Bintley isn't a novice in the adaptation game: his Cyrano, Edward II and, most particularly, Hobson's Choice hinted at an instinctive pull towards narrative territory and a belief in the transformative power of stories. And yet, despite his skill in abbreviating and organising Hardy's text for the stage, Bintley fails to convey the subtleties of the story through choreographic means alone.

Exaggerated gesticulation accompanies mute conversation as villagers mill around pretending to engage in farming chit-chat; and the protagonists strain to indicate key moments as the tale progresses. Likewise, Paul Reade's commissioned score, drowning in its own overplay of emotion, rolls and booms with irritating predictability towards every climax; a form of aural guidance built on the assumption that an audience needs to be told when the work's significant episodes are about to arrive.

Yet in spite of its weaknesses, (dull, uninventive duets, too many folksie ensemble dances for the peasants), its imbalances (music which swamps the dancing) and its insurmountable problems (Hardy without words is surely Hardy reduced), Bintley, Reade and designer Hayden Griffin (the Hobson's Choice team) have created a coherent piece of dance theatre in which Bathsheba Everdene (Leticia Muller) and her three suitors are believable, if lightly sketched, characters. By the end of the first of his three acts, Bintley has shifted from the Corn Exchange to the hiring fair to the sheep- shearing supper and introduced Gabriel Oak (Michael O'Hare), William Boldwood (Joseph Cipolla) and Sergeant Troy (Wolfgang Stollwitzer) in quick succession. He also establishes the fact of Fanny Robin's engagement to Troy in a scene where Robin (Rachel Peppin) encounters the garrison trollop (Dorcas Walters) sharing her favours with the Sergeant and two cavalry officers. In Act 2, Troy's grief over Fanny's death is at full throttle for so long that it becomes an empty rant. Much of Act 3 is taken up with events and amusements - the three-legged man, the bearded lady - at the Greenhill Fair before Bintley delivers a final, syrupy pas de deux between Gabriel and Bathsheba.

Griffin's designs - towering timber frame, wattle and daub-effect panels, hayricks - give an immediate sense of time and place, as does the backdrop of ever-changing skies which float over the open countryside of Hardy's Wessex as it rolls into the distance. It is a distance which provokes thought about the gap between the romantically rural, morally ordered past in which Bintley chooses to dwell and the cruel, uncompromising present which, in making this work, he refuses to face. In choosing to head backwards rather than forwards, he gives us yet another depressing example of British ballet's failure, indeed refusal, to look to the future.

n On tour to 18 May: Birmingham Hippodrome 1,2 Mar (0121-6227486); Theatre Royal Plymouth 8,9 Mar (01752-267222)