Opposites Attract was the title chosen to tie three pieces together in Birmingham Royal Ballet's first triple bill at Sadler's Wells this week, but that was optimistic: these three were so different in both style and quality that it was hard to find any affinity between them, or any sense of the company as a whole.
David Bintley's Take Five should be appealing, featuring as it does five couples, live jazz, lively jumps and turns, and colourful (but tour-appropriately minimal) lights and costumes. Unfortunately Dave Brubeck's catchy, understated tunes seem flat and repetitive when isolated in a large space and required to provide enough material to drive half an hour of dancing, and for choreography we had 28 minutes of rather unimaginative tripping about, dominated by glissades (a run/glide normally used to travel or to connect bigger movements) which followed the beats of the music exactly, a conceit which became actively irritating towards the end. The dancers are to be commended for their fitness in keeping up this breathless, yet heavy, petit allegro for so long, and for their synchronisation, without which the choreography would have been unwatchable. However much they smiled, though, they couldn't make it look interesting – with the honourable exception of William Bracewell, who – lucky him – seemed to be under the illusion that he was in West Side Story, snapping, smouldering and throwing his shoulders around with some of the Robbins flair the piece desperately needed. The others were doing their best to make the quasi-jazz hands and twee finishing poses look fun rather than naff, but it was an uphill struggle.
Lyric Pieces, made by American rising star Jessica Lang for BRB this year, made a refreshingly complete contrast in both style and substance. Lang hung a series of suggestive interactions on Grieg's evocative, concise piano pieces, hinting at a story but never pulling it all the way out. The aesthetic was classic mid-century American ballet – light blue practice-like clothes, warm overhead light, mostly bare stage – and there were moments of Balanchine in the choreography; a trio here, some diagonal lines there, several really beautiful formations. The other choreographer whose work seemed to flicker behind Lang's was Nijinska: I was reminded of Les Noces by some of the stark lines and averted faces, as well as the situation of a young couple surrounded by their peers and the hint of Scandinavian folk sensibility in the music. At its best Lang's choreography was intelligent, original and subtle, and BRB's dancers performed with a clean, elevated tone, which I felt was somewhat spoiled by the MacMillan-style emoting towards the end. The black paper concertina sculptures used as set dressing were a real high point, visually stunning, highly effective, and ingenious (if occasionally distracting). Let's hope that David Bintley, having given Lang her first commission in Europe, will start a trend: I would love to see more work like Lyric Pieces.
Hans van Manen's Grosse Fuge, set to Beethoven, was made for Nederlands Dans Theater in the 1970s. Then, its minimalist choreography, brightly lit sets and disconcerting costumes – long trouser-skirts and bare chests for the men, 1950s control underwear and elaborately futuristic hairdos for the women (think Natalie Portman in Star Wars Episode I) – were as modern and distinctive as Wayne McGregor's undulating spine and skimpy nude leotards are now. It's still richly strange, but tonight's rather leaden performance by BRB didn't make the best of it. The first half of the piece had a mesmerising quality, as the four men in black skirts swung long straight limbs in strict unison, but in the second half, when they lost the skirts for skimpy boxer briefs, it became unfortunately campy. There is a hint of Tarzan-like chest-beating and bicep flexing, and the whole effect resembles a slow-motion, side-lit Chippendale show, incongruously set to Beethoven and accessorised with geishas (the stony-faced women who lie on the floor and clutch at their partners' belts). The execution was not aided by raggedy playing from the orchestra: on the whole, this fugue failed to fly.
Birmingham Royal Ballet's dancers are hard-working, versatile, and extremely likeable, but last night only Lyric Pieces really allowed them to shine; let's hope for more spark at Autumn Celebration later this week.
Sadler's WellsRosebery Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom EC1R 4TN
Lyric Pieces: Maureya Lebowitz, Yijing Zhang and James Barton in 'Elves' Dance' © Bill Cooper