“Daphnis and Chloe”, “Nine Sinatra Songs”, “Paquita Suite”
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler's Wells Theatre
9-10 October 2007 and touring
by John Percival
copyright 2007 by John Percival
Why did it take choreographers so long to wake up to Ravel's music? Although he wrote five ballet scores and part of another, they had few stagings before he died in his sixties. And the poor chap could scarcely guess that they and much of his concert music would be danced more often in latter years, even that he would become one of only three choreographers chosen by Balanchine to be celebrated by New York City Ballet with a festival devoted to their work (and a less obvious choice than the similarly honoured Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky).
Strange to think, for instance, that his “Daphnis and Chloe”, commissioned by Diaghilev for Nijinsky and Karsavina and always enjoyed for its musical qualities, was a rarity in the theatre when Frederick Ashton decided to mount it forty years later, in 1951; strange, too, that the ballet was even then not widely liked. Luckily it survived and became much more popular. Even so, it went more than half a century given only by the Covent Garden Royal Ballet until this season when Birmingham Royal Ballet mounted it. They have, happily, one of the best ballet orchestras, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, which gave a fine account of the score under its music director Barry Wordsworth (even without a singing chorus, presumably too expensive). The designs, happily, were the originals by the painter John Craxton, who himself supervised this revival, with its handsome Greek settings and mainly modern costumes.
Three casts danced the premiere at Birmingham Hippodrome and again a week later at Sadler's Wells where I saw them. Elisha Willis, I thought, was a little stiff as Chloe; a pity, since she was paired with the best Daphnis, handsome and expressive Iain Mackay. However, I'll not complain about guest dancer Robert Tewsley, who played Daphnis to Nao Sakuma's sweet Chloe, nor about Chi Cao, who was teamed with the best although most junior of the heroines, Natasha Oughtred. She has just transferred from the London company, where the management seemed to undervalue her gifts. Let me briefly mention, among the other roles, Dominic Antonucci's dashing but unscrupulous Dorkon (the rival for Chloe's hand) and Tom Rogers in the tiny but important role of Pan.
This new production was played on a triple bill called Strictly Dancing, including Twyla Tharp's “Nine Sinatra Songs” which BRB mounted last year. It seemed much enjoyed by audiences and certainly was by me, although several London critics derided it, but they tend to sneer at BRB as a whole. The Tharp deserves welcome for its attractive music – for once we must not object to a recorded score – and for giving a whole series of dancers the chance to amuse and to show entertaining personalities. Among these were several comparative newcomers, including last year recruits Celine Gittens and James Barton, attractively daft-looking in the Somethin' Stupid duet, and Mathias Dingman, who partnered the still young Momoko Hirata in one of the leading numbers, Forget Domani.
Also given was a revival of the classical suite from “Paquita”, which achieved much fine dancing from the entire twelve-strong female ensemble besides different women every performance as four soloists and a ballerina. There is only one male role, but I wish you could see Chi Cao dancing this as he did on opening night: a pepped-up version featuring not only dazzling double cabrioles but a sequence of seven impeccable double tours en l'air from and to first position of the feet, given without any pause and (get this) in alternate directions – left, right, left ... Do you know anyone else who could even try this, let alone do it so perfectly? And yet he made it look so easy that most reviewers apparently didn't even notice him. I'd say Chi Cao must have the best technique of any man in British or American ballet today, and stylish with it too.
The other half of the week was given over to a revival of artistic director David Bintley's evening-long “Edward II”, a danced drama in two acts adapted from Christopher Marlowe's celebrated Elizabethan play. I'm reminded that I praised this when Bintley created it on the Stuttgart Ballet in 1995 and first showed it on BRB two years later, so I'd better shut up about having found it somewhat padded this time round. I saw only one of the three casts and the soloist who stood out for me was Martin Harvey, a guest from Covent Garden, as the king's homosexual lover Gaveston. Harvey hasn't usually impressed me much but in this he was great; praise to him, to Bintley, and to the unnamed coach.
Premieres to come later this season are a jazz ballet “Take Five” by Bintley and a new “Baiser de la fee” by Michael Corder continuing the Birmingham orchestras' Stravinsky celebrations. Something to look forward to.
Photo: Daphnis and Chloë: Elisha Willis as Chloë and Iain Mackay as Daphnis; photo: Bill Cooper