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About the Change

Birmingham Royal Ballet

‘Scenes de Ballet’, ‘Dante Sonata’, ‘Enigma Variations’

April 2000
Birmingham, Repertory Theatre

by Lynette Halewood

Dante Sonata reviews

BRB Enigma reviews

all Enigma reviews

all BRB reviews

BRBís Ashton season continues with a triple bill, offering some rarely seen works, and the chance to see some aspects of Ashton which are quite unfamiliar. The triple bill concludes with the work which is probably best known, Enigma Variations. This was revived for BRB in 1994 by Michael Somes, and also featured in the Royalís Ashton programme last year. Alexander Grant is credited with assistance in BRBís staging this season. Itís interesting to be able to compare the two versions. I have to say that BRB comes off rather better: the casting for the Royalís version was particularly capricious, with a number of participants looking quite uncomfortable and almost unsure why they were there. BRBís version has a more harmonious feel, and the ensemble nature of the work suits them. They do look credibly like a group of friends, and the interactions of the group seem entirely natural and unforced. The work gives plenty of opportunities for soloists: Kevin OíHare and David Justin supplied nice cameos as Troyte and as George Robinson Sinclair. Dorcas Walters has the lightness and speed of footwork for Dorabella, even though sheís hardly a slip of a girl. Cipolla was Elgar, with Silvia Jimenez as his wife. It was a very restrained and understated performance, which I liked. Ashton can achieve his effects with great economy of means: the simple gesture where Elgar, Lady Elgar and Jaeger slowly raise their arms to the sky to the Nimrod variation is quietly beautiful. It was received with real warmth by the audience.

The rest of the programme was more unfamiliar ground. The opening work was Scenes de Ballet, which was last danced in the UK about ten years ago by the Royal. This is an abstract work for a couple, four male soloists, and a corps of twelve women. For best effect, this ought to be viewed at some distance from the stage, to appreciate Ashtonís careful groupings, sometimes symmetric, sometimes not. The Rep is quite an intimate space, and though this was excellent for the nuances of Enigma, it worked rather less well for Scenes de Ballet. There was a last minute change of casting because of the illness of Robert Parker: the lead couple were Nao Sakuma and Sergiu Pobereznic. Sakuma is still only a first artist, but is clearly going places and has been cast in a number of leading roles already. She looked very relaxed and confident. Technically, it wasnít quite all together, but a pretty impressive performance from her nonetheless.

It dates from 1948 - Ashton must have been in a very fertile patch around then. The work is a kind of distillation of the essence of grand classical ballet: the grand finale without any distracting narrative. There are hints or references to other works - the ballerina is partnered by the four soloists in turn in a way that evokes, but never quotes from, Sleeping Beauty. And yet despite this, it has a spikiness, and sharpness which is quite its own. It really needed a touch more grandeur than the cast gave it, but it was a decent attempt all the same. Technically itís a very demanding work for all concerned. The men are asked for a ceaseless series of jumps and lifts: they werenít always achieved with quite level of precision required. Itís quite a cool work, seeming to lack Ashtonís characteristic human warmth.

The middle work of the programme was a complete contrast. This was a revival or reconstruction of Dante Sonata, a work made in 1940, which dropped out of the repertory after the late 40s. The staging is credited to Jean Bedells (who worked on last years reconstruction of de Valois The Prospect Before Us), and Pauline Clayden, with assistance from Pamela May. Last year, Bintley acknowledged that he had supplied a small percentage of the choreography for The Prospect Before Us, where the dancers memory had failed them. Thereís no indication in the programme that he played that role here.

Dante Sonata is simply extraordinary. It doesnít look like anything else Ashton did, and its atmosphere is strange - febrile, haunted, guilt-ridden. Two groups of dancers are designated the Children of Light and Children of Darkness. The first are in white, the women in long translucent shifts, the second in fleshcoloured leotards with back overskirts and long black embroidered snakes coiling around them. All are barefoot, the women with hair flowing free. Conflicts between the groups swirl across the stage, but this is clearly not some simple struggle between good and evil, although the group in back exude malevolence. There is some terrible inner turbulence in the minds of all, as is they are irretrievably damaged and ashamed by their participation in the struggle, which has an erotic as well as warlike dimension. There are some amazing pictures on stage: the bodies of the male children of darkness stacked in a heap of writhing limbs: a crucifixion image as the lead male of the children of light is killed. There is a strange solo for one of the white women (Andrea Tredinnick) - shaking the head, beating the arms and flailing, totally unballetic, from another dance world - which seemed both profoundly modern and like an ancient primitive ceremony of wailing all at the same time. The final image returns to the crucifixion theme, with the two leaders of each faction lifted in agony.

It really is difficult to describe this work and its effect. Itís only seventeen minutes long, but is so complex and contains so much, and it would need several viewings to get to grips with it. It was made in 1940, under very difficult wartime conditions. No other work by Ashton is so disturbing and so bleak. Leading dancers at this performance were, in white, Monica Zamora, Andrea Tredinnick, Wolfgang Stollwitzer, and in black, Asya Verzhbinsky and Dominic Antonnuci.

Dante Sonata is a startling and fiercely dramatic work, and genuinely worth reviving. Bintley has done the Ashton inheritance a great service with this season, and the triple bill will be touring this autumn.

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