Ninette de Valois' Checkmate is easily the strongest work on the bill. Conceived in 1937 as a grand and treacherous chess game whose combatants are love and death, it was a nod to the political ferment in Europe, and even a touch prophetic. It was among the ballets the company was performing in Holland when the Germans attacked and the dancers escaped with their lives. In the scramble they were forced to leave behind their costumes, along with the original backdrop by the artist E McKnight Kauffer.
Stark and emblematic in style, the ballet relies on theatrical attack, and these dancers give it plenty. De Valois' crisp piqué steps bring out the best in Birmingham's corps, and their chequerboard formations are tightly realised, though the effort sometimes shows. I loved Andrea Tredinnick's glowingly virtuous Red Queen and Jonathan Payn's decrepit but benign Red King. These are not full dancing roles, but demand bags of that old-fashioned quality called presence. Nao Sakuma, however, is oddly cast as the malign Black Queen. Though she is probably Birmingham's best dancer and would win an Olympic gold in lip curling, she is simply too small for the part.
The real discovery of this revival is the quality of Arthur Bliss's score whose wild scope and brassy energy is given full welly by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. They try to do the same with the patchwork of Verdi opera tunes in the ballet that follows, but John Cranko's The Lady and the Fool is by contrast a pallid thing - full of empty sentiment and froth. The plot concerns a famous beauty who invites two clowns to entertain her guests at a party. Rejecting rich suitors one by one, she eventually falls for Moondog, one of the scruffy entertainers, gaily cocking a snook at wealth and glamour.
While the company throw their all into a riot of mugging and dancing, it's unclear if they're serious or sending it up. Kate Ford's new designs show a ghastly pink ballroom and dress the suitors like characters from panto. Cranko certainly intended comedy in his choreography for the clowns (nicely timed by Robert Parker and Kosuke Yamamoto as a balletic Laurel and Hardy), but I suspect the original mood of the piece was more Grace Kelly than Groucho Marx.
The evening's opener, Solitaire, felt similarly compromised. It's hard to credit now that this peculiarly sugary example of early Kenneth MacMillan notched up 300 performances when it was new. Again, the choreography has some smart ideas but the dramatic mood is soggy. Viktoria Walton as the lonely girl with imaginary friends whips through the steps but spoils her pitch with coy smiles and lid-fluttering.
By a strange coincidence the Royal Ballet's latest triple bill opens in the same elusive mood. Fete Etrange, made by Andrée Howard in 1940, also hinges on a string of non-happenings in the life of a lonely dreamer - a country boy wanders into a wedding party and falls in love with the bride. But where Howard's ballet scores over MacMillan's is in capturing a tremulous sense of mystery. Fauré's music is the aural equivalent of eating marshmallows, and what we see is like entering a dream. If I dozed off once or twice it was no fault of the dancing, more a mark of the ballet's intoxicating success - a strange feat indeed.
BRB: Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) Tue & Wed; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000) 8 & 9 Nov. RB: Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) ends Tue
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