Dance: Ballet sweets of the Seventies

Towards the Millennium Birmingham Royal Ballet

It was a Seventies theme night at the Birmingham Hippodrome last Wednesday. As part of Simon Rattle's "Towards the Millennium" festival, Birmingham Royal Ballet staged a triple bill of works from the decade that brought you the Bee Gees and Buzzcocks - although the most modern music on offer was Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements from 1946. The flavour of the period (if it was present at all) was to be savoured in the choreography.

The evening began with Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements, a full- frontal assault of dance premiered in 1972. As the curtain went up, the audience sighed with pleasure at the chaste diagonal of girls in white leotards which unfurls into a long Mexican wave of dance. Balanchine's deployment of this regiment of strong, confident female bodies matched the grand strains of Stravinsky. It wasn't perfect, and Bintley and Patricia Neary of the Balanchine Trust have clearly had to work hard to make up the numbers required, but I enjoyed every second of it. Balanchine's reinvention of the classic corps de ballet created a look that was harder and sharper than the tutu'd ensembles of Ivanov and Petipa, but the sense of wonder one feels at the sight of two dozen grown women all pledged to the service of the choreographer's big idea remains intact. Our focus on the choreography is sharpened by Balanchine's reassuringly inexpensive designs which never distract from the crystalline geometry of the ensembles and the punishing steps of the soloists.

Hans Van Manen's 1971 Grosse Fuge, danced to Beethoven, is similarly lean and thrifty. Four women in ecru leotards stand upstage from four men in long black divided skirts that swirl around with each powerful high kick. The structure of the ballet suggests the mating ritual of some alien life-form. The sexes take it in turns to display, before interacting more closely. Suddenly the skirts come off, revealing natty black trunks. As if accepting the invitation, the women then lie down, grab the men's thick leather belts and allow themselves to be pulled around the floor on their backs - whatever turns you on I suppose. The dominant males included Joseph Cipolla, Wolfgang Stollwitzer and the dangerously elegant Andrew Murphy. All three star in David Bintley's powerful slice of medieval homoerotica, Edward II, which is also on tour this spring.

Bintley seldom assembles a mixed programme that doesn't have a bit of sugar sprinkled on it - his jazzy Nutcracker Sweeties could almost have been written for the purpose. This time the petits fours were supplied by Sir Kenneth MacMillan's ragtime dance marathon Elite Syncopations. The candy-coloured costumes by Ian Spurling and the general air of saccharine gaiety made the ballet an instant success at its premiere in 1974. With its post-psychedelic Carnaby Street styling and its use of pop tunes (Scott Joplin enjoyed a posthumous chart success following the release of the movie The Sting in 1973), this was by far the most Seventies of the three ballets in the programme. It couldn't have been made five years later. Wednesday night's performance certainly didn't have the zip of MacMillan's original cast but the laughs were all in place and Bintley's dancers relished every one of them.

BRB will tour (including the reviewed programme) to Liverpool, Plymouth, Bradford, Manchester and Bristol after dancing Far From the Madding Crowd, Birmingham Hippodrome (0121-622 7486) 3-7 March.

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