After their underpowered Swan Lake, Birmingham Royal Ballet's triple bill shows them right back up to speed. For one thing, it proves – lest we had forgotten – that David Bintley can still bring out the occasional choreographic gem. He is at his best, of course, when not dealing in full-evening narratives, and The Seasons, receiving its world premiere, is a joyous plotless celebration of classical dance.
Set to the ballet music in Verdi's opera Les vêpres siciliennes, the choreography pays more attention to its relationship with the music than to any thematic contrasts between the calendar seasons. Like Balanchine before him, Bintley plays inventive games with 19th-century forms, giving innovative twists to the deployment of dancers. The four principal men who open the ballet with grand, formal postures are succeeded not, as you might expect, by their four female counterparts, but by a large horde of women who spill out to the music's abrupt switch into ominous chords. The Spring couple Nao Sakuma and Chi Cao begin with a lengthy sequence in which Cao carries Sakuma like an elaborate bouquet, matching the sinuous melodic line of a clarinet. And in Summer, the corps de ballet women who accompany Sabrina Lenzi and Tiit Helimets become a collective third party, transforming the pas de deux into a pas de trois.
Lenzi and Helimets are splashes of sun-yellow amid the other women's blue tutus, white cirrus cloud wisps printed on the blue. Jean-Marc Puissant's costumes are ravishing, some tutus shimmering like panne velvet against a simple colour-changing backdrop. With the ebullient finale we arrive in the Balanchine territory of Symphony in C, each set of soloists returning among the rows of corps de ballet. But even before that I longed for more dazzling performances, although some individuals did shine out. Sakuma moved with quiet expressiveness; Cao's scissor jumps were sensational; and Kosuke Yamamoto danced his Winter solo with lovely rubato detailing.
Dante Sonata, Ashton's wartime ballet, saved from oblivion last year, strikes a particularly timely note with its theme of the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness. Equally up to date is Ashton's barefoot modern dance and BRB have almost settled into it. Occasionally, though, they still need to let rip into a full-bodied, risky dynamic, so as to avoid any hint of pose-striking quaintness; but Silvia Jimenez was particularly fine as the lead evil woman.
Then comes Bintley's charming 'Still Life' at the Penguin Café, cheered by the mass of teenagers studying it as a GCSE text. They couldn't have a more stimulating subject, full of clever cross-references and puns, right down to the title. Is there still life out there, in the natural world? Or will nature become, like the ballet's tableaux, a series of natures mortes?
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