Autumn Celebration!

Birmingham Royal Ballet's second mixed bill at Sadler's Wells this Autumn brought together The Grand Tour (1971), the company's Cultural Olympiad offering Faster, Higher, Stronger, and Sir Frederick Ashton's classic The Dream. While some of the bill felt strange to a contemporary audience, other parts were a real pleasure to see.

This listing is in the past.

When The Grand Tour was premièred in 1971, the cast of celebrities it satirises were still well known, even though their 1930s heyday had passed. The problem with this rather lovely little work now is that its references are just too far in the past: neither the dancers nor the audience know who these exaggerated oddballs – Gertrude Lawrence, Theda Bara – were, or what they were famous for. So you get a character-driven piece which lacks the characters to drive it, although the dancers are acting every second with the precision demanded by choreographer Joe Layton and passed down a direct line of descent in the company (The Grand Tour was made for Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, the company which became BRB, and some original cast members were involved in masterminding this revival).

Some things still work: Coward's music is poignant, restrained and atmospheric, although the recording of him singing (mouthed-along to by the dancer playing Coward) is creepy rather than evocative. The character of the American lady was played with great sweetness by Jade Heusen and her relationship with the tall, dishy, impeccably polite and yet genuinely kind Chief Steward, played by Tom Rogers, was rather lovely; without big-name cariacature parts to play, these two could afford to act and emote, and they did. For the rest, Layton's choreography is smart and perfectly suited to Coward's music, and the dancers mostly did it competently, but they just couldn't raise any laughs. The audience seemed baffled, which was rather a shame: this is a well-formed, smart little ballet and BRB did their best with it, but evidently its personality-based appeal is fading as the Golden Thirties begin to pass out of living memory.

From the nostalgic trip, we were brought bang up to date with David Bintley's Faster, Higher, Stronger, BRB's contribution to the Cultural Olympiad this year. Bintley had teamed up again with composer Matthew Hindson (after a successful collaboration on E=mc2), who delivered the goods with the kind of driving, rhythmic, yet easy-on-the-ear score which seems to be the norm for this kind of modern ballet. The first section featured dancers representing a selection of Olympic sports, through ballet-ified renditions of their characteristic motions.

Some were more successful than others: the forward and back steps of the fencers, in daft quilted costumes, were a bit too literal, but the synchronised swimmers were excellent, evoking well the discipline with straight arms and eerily synchronised heads. It was smart to have a trio of gymnasts (Feargus Campbell, Jenna Roberts and William Bracewell) performing the demanding, intricate lifts which are common in modern choreography and blur the line between ballet and gymnastics, sometimes – I would say – going too far in the latter direction. Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singletone, who danced with appealing abandon as the judo couple, also filled the second section, meant to represent the struggle of sportspeople with both other competitors and their own physical limits. With their intense, focused effort, these two gave that struggle raw, affecting power. The third section was a romp in running shorts and spikes: energetic and ingenious in its formations – kudos to the dancers for being precise enough to make it (mostly) look exhiliarating, rather than chaotic. The audience were sold by the end, their response the most enthusiastic I've heard for BRB in this run at Sadler's Wells.

The last piece in this triple bill was The Dream, Frederick Ashton's beautiful distillation of A Midsummer Night's Dream set to Mendelssohn's incidental music for the play. Ashton's adaptation is skilful and tightly plotted; his ability to imitate, surpass and subvert the Romantic style of La Sylphide and its ilk quite thrilling. This performance saw more junior dancers take the lead roles, young Principal Natasha Oughtred and First Artist William Bracewell. After his bravura performance in Take Five on Tuesday and in Faster, Higher, Stronger, I was looking forward to Bracewell's Oberon, but he looked a little nervous and stiff in the neck. He's a great dancer, and can certainly act (see his winning turn at the 2012 Youth America Grand Prix) but perhaps he was tired; certainly he wasn't on top form. Oughtred erred on the side of coquettishness in her portrayal of Titania, losing some of the fairy queen's feyness, but dancing well and lightly.

The supporting roles, especially Bottom, were funny but not overdone; the fairy attendants beautiful dancers. Tzu-Chao Chu as Puck had absolutely incredible elevation and brio in his jumps, but could have put some more subtlety into his characterisation, the manic grin he wore throughout got a little wearing. Still, this was a beautifully presented Dream and it was a pleasure to see it; thank you, Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Programme

The Grand Tour

Music by: Coward, Noel (1899-1973)

Choreography by Joe Layton

Faster, Higher, Stronger

Music by: Hindson, Matthew (b. 1968)

Choreography by David Bintley

Dream, The

Music by: Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)

Choreography by Frederick Ashton


Autumn Celebration! brings together Shakespeare, Noel Coward and an Olympic theme. The Grand Tour by Broadway show choreographer Joe Layton is an amusing take on the celebrities of the 1920s. Faster – a ballet inspired by the Olympic motto, ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ from David Bintleyand composer Matthew Hindson, focuses on speed, power and athleticism. Finally, The Dream is Frederick Ashton’s elfin comedy based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed to Mendelssohn’s instantly recognisable score.

Sadler's Wells

Rosebery Avenue
London Greater London United Kingdom EC1R 4TN

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Image credits:
The Grand Tour: Jade Heusen (American Tourist), Callie Roberts (Theda Bara), Tom Rogers (G.B. Shaw) © Roy Smiljanic
FASTER - Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton © Roy Smiljanic
Natasha Oughtred as Titania and William Bracewell as Oberon © Bill Cooper
The Grand Tour, Callie Roberts as Theda Bara © Roy Smiljanic