Enigma Variations, Birmingham Royal Ballet

Moving portrait of Elgar's friends fizzes with half-hidden emotion
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The Independent Culture

Birmingham Royal had a huge success at New York's celebration of Ashton choreography this summer.

Birmingham Royal had a huge success at New York's celebration of Ashton choreography this summer.

Back in Britain, the company have revived Enigma Variations, one of the highlights of that New York season. It's a moving performance.

Elgar's score is a portrait of his friends, "pictured within" a set of variations. The ballet puts them on stage, in brilliantly precise character dances.

Troyte's bantering solo is full of abrupt changes of direction, fizzingly fast and crisp. Lady Mary Lygon, on a sea voyage at the time of composition, flows across the stage, trailing a misty veil. Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs are naturalistic, dropping autumnal leaves on an Edwardian landscape.

Ashton has a sure sense of his audience. The ballet starts with Elgar, quiet and thoughtful, but there's an early ripple of laughter as the young Dorabella ducks under his book, into his arms - and then away again, as Elgar bends to kiss her forehead. There are romantic duets for younger characters, but not for the composer.

The ballet is a picture of friendship, but also of distance. The central dances are full of unspoken feeling, people reaching for expression. Elgar's wife, a warmly supportive figure, stretches out a hand to him, and withdraws it before he sees her.

People are turned away from each other, break off gestures before they can complete them. Those half-sketched steps catch the music's emotion; each change of direction has the impact of a new thought.

This revival is strongly cast. Jonathan Payne is movingly simple and direct as Elgar. As his wife, Silvia Jiminez seems to feel her role rather than to act it; her dancing is warmly phrased, focused on the figure of her husband. Valentin Olovyannikov is impressive as Jaeger.

On this triple bill, Enigma is flanked by two Balanchine ballets. BRB are too decorous for Concerto Barocco, a lucidly classical work danced to Bach's double violin concerto. Balanchine finds jazz rhythms in Bach.

When the women lift a knee mid-phrase, it can have an electric spontaneity. This cast dance cleanly, but they smooth those rhythms into even politeness. The slow movement comes off best, Molly Smolen unfolding her legs with greater attack.

Western Symphony is Balanchine's cowboy ballet. Hershy Kay's arrangement of traditional American tunes would do nicely for a B-movie Western. The dances are flashy: fouettés, jumps, ballet jokes.