I wish I could applaud David Bintley's ambition. The director of Birmingham Royal Ballet has planned his Beauty and the Beast as both a Christmas show and a real classical ballet. It has a commissioned score, handsome designs and opportunities for dancing. Philip Prowse's sets and costumes carry the evening; everything else crumbles. Glenn Buhr's music is a mixture of crude scene-setting and sugary pastiche. Bintley's dances are dutifully academic.
Bintley loves narrative, but often loses the thread in subplots. Here, the discipline of a fairy tale keeps him on the rails. He adds a prologue - the prince turned into the Beast as punishment for his sins - then tells the story clearly. But he just doesn't make good dances out of it.
Worst of all, he gives his heroine nothing to do until Act II. Her vain sisters have plenty of footwork; their greedy suitor jumps and poses; but Belle might as well have left off her pointe shoes until after the interval. She needs a solo, some stage-time to show us who she is and why we should care about her. Instead, Bintley leaves steps to the vain, the silly and the stupid.
For most of the ballet, Belle and the Beast are stuck with a style that isn't dance, isn't mime, isn't quite anything. They pace about, emoting - an arm gesture here, a turn there, but mostly walking and brow-clutching. They do dance in the happy-ending duet, but there's nothing distinctive in that series of embraces and supported positions. Under the Beast's layers of fur and fang, Robert Parker has authority and stage presence. Asta Bazeviciute, as Belle, switches between strained solemnity and a nervous smile. Bazeviciute, promoted as a future star, is tall and striking, but her tense shoulders and stiff feet make it hard to see her as a ballerina.
The other members of the company do what they can. Silvia Jimenez and Victoria Marr are vivacious Sisters. Ambra Vallo, a vixen turned into a woman when the prince became a beast, keeps her eyes wide and her dancing fast. Marion Tait has a scene-stealing cameo as Belle's grandmother. The corps, as the ravens who fly Belle to the Beast's castle, dance their jazz steps rather politely.
The ballet is lifted by the grand ball of Act II. Prowse's ballroom, all old gold and mirrors, is lit by hazy candlelight; the Beast's masked courtiers sweep on in a polonaise, then turn to a waltz.
Buhr at last provides some dance rhythms; the corps whirl and spin through their social dance steps. Only Belle's solo - her first in the ballet - is somewhat underpowered.
The sets do a lot to rescue the ballet. Belle's father's house, a drop-cloth of a prim parlour, is whisked out of the way to show the crumbling, heavily built battlements of the Beast's castle. The ruined walls open out into a Baroque interior. The magic world is solidly three-dimensional, with animal shapes lurking in the gloom.
Prowse also provides the evening's one magical moment. Stuffed birds line the bookcases of Belle's father's library; when she agrees to go to the Beast's castle, they start to move, unsettling their wings, preparing for flight. We can see the heroine cross from one world to the other.
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