Such Sweet Thunder, Hippodrome, Birmingham

A trip to heaven and hell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Birmingham Royal Ballet's jazz triple bill is perfectly all right until the last piece. The Nutcracker Sweeties and The Shakespeare Suite, both choreographed by BRB's director, David Bintley, are cheerful, crowd-pleasing numbers, brightly designed and breezily danced. But with his new Orpheus Suite, Bintley strains for significance and comes unstuck.

Birmingham Royal Ballet's jazz triple bill is perfectly all right until the last piece. The Nutcracker Sweeties and The Shakespeare Suite, both choreographed by BRB's director, David Bintley, are cheerful, crowd-pleasing numbers, brightly designed and breezily danced. But with his new Orpheus Suite, Bintley strains for significance and comes unstuck.

The theme of this evening, given the umbrella title Such Sweet Thunder, is Duke Ellington. Both Sweeties and Shakespeare Suite have Ellington scores, exuberantly played by Colin Towns's Mask Orchestra. With his latest ballet, Bintley takes Ellington as his subject, then dresses him up in the Orpheus myth.

In telling stories, Bintley doesn't know what to leave out. This isn't just Orpheus the legendary musician, Orpheus and his wife Eurydice, Orpheus torn apart by maenads. It's also Orpheus with the Argonauts, imagined as an Ellington-style band on tour, plus Apollo as celestial bandleader.

This Orpheus also tries to suggest the social history of jazz, an underworld of dodgy clubs and prostitution. Aristaeus, who tries to rape Eurydice, has an entourage of girls who hold peep-show poses. Hades is full of gloomy tarts in garters.

For all this conceptual overload, the story is fairly clear. What it lacks is emotional depth. Eurydice dies and Orpheus mourns her, but it's hard to care very much. As Orpheus, Robert Parker spins and jumps with crisp attack. Elisha Willis dances well as Eurydice, but she has to spend half the ballet drooping. Tiit Helimets is a brisk Apollo, and Iain Mackay slithers as Aristaeus.

Colin Towns's new score is a mix of big-band jazz and sampled wails, with Latin beats for heaven and much crashing about for Hades. It's loud and energetic, but it doesn't make up for the choreography's lack of feeling. Steve Scott's set, a row of sliding panels, works fluently enough.

The evening opens with The Nutcracker Sweeties. Ellington's jazz version of Tchaikovsky is on the sugared side, but it bounces along. Jasper Conran's shiny designs, 1940s pop confections, lift the whole production. The splendid Monica Zamora returns as a guest artist, dancing a sultry Sugar Rum Cherry. Silvia Jiminez and Dominic Antonucci strut through the Floreador waltz, set as a ballroom number.

That hint of social dance is the best choreography in The Nutcracker Sweeties, and there's much more of it in The Shakespeare Suite. Bintley uses Ellington numbers for a series of Shakespearean characters. There are buoyant touches of jive, tango and the lindy hop, and the dancers respond with glee.

Petruchio (Antonucci) tries to pull Kate (Carol-Anne Millar) through a jive lift, and she won't go. Zamora is a glamorous Lady Anne, doing tango swoops around Michael Kopinski's Richard III. Robert Parker's Hamlet leads the ballet with taut jazz strutting.

Serious numbers are weaker. Molly Smolen and Helimets have to work hard to characterise Bintley's wafty Romeo and Juliet. Then there's Othello. The strangling of Desdemona is badly out of place in an upbeat ballet, and Bintley's use of Ellington's "Black and Tan Fantasy" is glib.

Otherwise, though, it all moves fast, and the Birmingham dancers look bright and happy in its flash steps and social dances.A fizzing company showcase.

Touring ( www.brb.org.uk)

Comments