Birmingham Royal Ballet, Hippodrome, Birmingham

Imagine a rodeo convention held in Wiltshire...

Jenny Gilbert
Saturday 11 January 2014 02:05

The time is long past when Birmingham Royal Ballet gazed enviously on its Covent Garden sibling. What the Midlands company lacked in facilities was compensated for by a strong local fanbase with an uncommonly wide social spread.

BRB took pride in not being posh. However, ever since last year when it acquired a splendidly refurbished theatre, new studios and a state-of-the-art physiotherapy facility, that staunch support has wavered. Empty seats were in evidence on the opening night of the new season, and this despite a triple bill that practically popped its cork with crowd-pleasing fizz. Even the exclamation mark in the title, Way Out West!, began to look a teeny bit desperate.

You couldn't fault the programming – all three works new to the company, and one a world premiere. Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free – the 1944 sailors-on-the-razzle number which Robbins later expanded into the musical On The Town – wows audiences the world over, and BRB has just the talents to make it sing. Not least of these is its orchestra, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, whose palpable pleasure in the rude, brassy swoops of Bernstein's score sets the action on course from the first entry.

In a short time the three boys establish not only three distinct personalities, but also the complex mixture of loucheness and nervy over-excitement on which the steps and the comedy depend. Like the two girls the sailors are trying to impress, I was duly awed by Michael Revie's repeat double-tours which landed in the splits, tickled by James Grundy's bar-top impersonation of a harem concubine, and plain in love with Robert Parker's spaniel-eyed lyricism. Of the girls, Rachel Peppin struck up a convincing sexual rapport, but Angela Paul got the brittle, flirty hauteur to a T. As dance, the piece depends on the easy assimilation of broad-brush Broadway style with classical precision. As a comedy of manners, it lives or dies on the appearance of casualness married to split-second timing. Even the disposal of chewing-gum wrappers becomes a make-or-break moment. And I'm pleased to report that David Bintley's directorial touch is as reliable as ever. You could almost believe the jokes were new.

Balanchine's Western Symphony (made in 1952) is another piece of upbeat Americana, this time set firmly within the classical style, though you wouldn't know it from the costumes. Cowboys and 1880s saloon-bar floozies performing formal pas de deux may seem incongruous – but this is the effect intended. Imagine a convention of rodeo enthusiasts held in Wiltshire, and you get some idea of the fancy-dress fetishism here. But despite the thigh-slapping gusto of Hershy Kay's tunes and the hoe-down chorus lines, cheerful energy alone is not enough to make the piece succeed. Despite the speed, the duets demand a clean classical line, and this was not always forthcoming.

The dancers seemed surer of their ground in Bintley's straightforwardly formal Concert Fantasy, set to a little-known work for piano and orchestra by Tchaikovsky. Although it fell outside the Western theme, the work made a good opener for its exuberant use of the corps – 12 couples all told. And BRB's corps looked strong and assured in the bold diagonals Bintley contrived to match the music's classical structures.

The central part is a long piano cadenza (bravo Jonathan Higgins, who surely possesses more than the usual complement of fingers) whose extreme mood swings the choreography aims to match. Fleeting references to the White Swan in Swan Lake anchor the movement in Tchaikovsky's elegiac world, but the physical fireworks never quite meet the music's mountain peaks. And I longed to see something I hadn't seen before. Classical doesn't have to mean hide-bound.

BRB is in safe hands. Safe to a fault, I'd say. And in case anyone asks, David Bintley is not about to leap into the leadership hole-in-the-ground at Covent Garden. Despite being tipped for the job two years ago, he has since declared himself a true son of Brum. He is priming his company for the city's bid to be a European Capital of Culture in 2008, plus he has just renewed his season ticket for Aston Villa. There's the clincher.

BRB: Empire, Sunderland (0191 514 2517), 15-17 Oct; Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267 222), 22-24 Oct

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