Review: Dance - Happy birthday to a great Dame

Birmingham Royal Ballet Birmingham Hippodrome
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Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

Almost 60 years ago, in the darkest days of the Second World War, the Sadler's Wells Ballet escaped from Holland, (where they had just started a tour meant to boost Dutch, Belgian and French morale), as German tanks rolled in.

Arriving back in London without their scenery, costumes or music, the dancers started right away with rehearsals for a new ballet by their director Ninette de Valois, premiered only weeks later in July 1940.

Characteristically, her response to disaster was an uproarious comedy, ironically titled The Prospect Before Us, or, Pity The Poor Dancers. Highly popular at the time, but unseen since 1952, it was a clever choice for revival this week by to celebrate Dame Ninette's 100th birthday tomorrow.

Robust and sometimes bawdy engravings by the 18th century caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, jolly music by his contemporary William Boyce and a true story of theatrical rivalries in 1789-90 were the starting points for de Valois, her music director Constant Lambert and designer Roger Furse.

Backstage frictions, the dippy aspirations of ballerinas and the preening of their partners provide the background for a display of low cunning and high inebriation by theatre manager Mr O'Reilly, which originally gave the late, great Robert Helpmann his most memorable role.

Not much chance of matching that today (although BRB's present director David Bintley might well have pulled it off before he hung up his dancing shoes). Still, Michael O'Hare in his gentler way gets a lot of chuckles from the audience, and will get even more if he can add some of the exuberance he has shown in other ballets.

Rachel Peppin, David Justin and Joseph Cipolla keep the fun going as three self-centred ballet stars. But it is Chenca Williams, making the tiny role of Madam Noverre into a constant focus of over-the-top reaction to every incident, who shows best how to make a character live on stage.

The opening piece is one of the finest ballets of Frederick Ashton's career, the beautifully limpid pure-dance piece he created to Cesar Francks' Symphonic Variations. Monica Zamora and Kevin O'Hare lead the cast of six in a cool, articulated account of the gorgeous choreography, with Jonathan Higgins as the excellent fellow pianist.

I am not sure that David Bintley did either the programme, or his own new ballet The Protecting Veil, a service by presenting it to close the evening. It is a setting of John Taverner's 1989 composition of that same name for cello and strings. Sincere praise must go to the cellist James Potter and his colleagues of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia (BRB's own orchestra) under Paul Murphy for the skill, care and understanding with which they played this difficult, long-winded score.

But what made Bintley choose music with so little variety of texture, speed or mood for a ballet lasting more than 40 minutes?

True, he has found some striking visual images to match, extend and dramatise the "icon in sound" which Taverner says was his aim, inspired by one of the feasts of the Russian Orthodox Church. However, the choreography is constricted too often to slow arm gestures - beautiful but heavily repetitious.

Ruari Murchison's designs, principally a rough golden wall and a symbolic ladder to heaven, contribute to the iconic purpose without adding any further dimension.

The protecting veil in question is that of the Mother of God, and Bintley ingeniously uses it for multiple purposes, from being bundled up as the swaddling clothes of the infant Jesus, to providing the shroud in a pieta sequence.

All five women taking part, dressed mainly in simple red frocks, represent aspects of Mary; the five bare-chested men may be at various times Joseph, Jesus or an angel.

An admirer could call the result solemn; a sceptic might say sanctimonious. I would say that, having saddled himself with an impossible task, Bintley has brought it off as well as anyone could hope. The cast is drawn from all ranks of the company and works perfectly as an ensemble: an impressive group achievement.