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Lazuli Sky

Posted on November 3, 2020

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Ordinarily, a sprinkling of viewers scattered around the seats at Sadler’s Wells would be a sorry sight, representing all too clearly a general lack of interest in that night’s attraction. Now, however, as they waited eagerly for Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) to present three new pieces – two never performed in the UK before, one a premiere – those carefully distanced people shared a heightened sense of expectation. They may have considered themselves privileged or grateful to be among the few.

“Thank you for staying with us and coming tonight,” Alistair Spalding said to them before the curtain rose. “We’ve only got 30 per cent of this house to make everything safe but still be able to open this house after the longest break since the war.”

“We’re finally back where we belong,” added Carlos Acosta, the company’s new artistic director, “on the stage.” He assigned part of the credit for that welcome return to BRB being “a company committed to find solutions to the obstacles we have at the moment.”

Dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Lazuli Sky. Photographs by Johan Persson.

What have you missed during lockdown? Certain dancers? Certain choreography? Socialising during intervals? Telling your friends about a performance the next day? Planning ahead for tickets? The various companies’ online efforts and the apparently limitless content on YouTube offered us plenty of dance to watch at home. Were you glued to your screen? Was it as satisfying as you’d hoped?

At Sadler’s Wells’ first public performance in seven months, I noticed that the immediate presence of the artists and the quality of the unknown choreography were only part, maybe the lesser part, of that evening’s experience. Sitting in the theatre, I rediscovered vital elements of live performance that had vanished from my mind. Like the anticipation provoked by the sound of an orchestra tuning up and the communal energy in the buzz of chatter during a pause between pieces. Like the wayward behaviour of audiences: someone took a flash photo when the stage was deliberately dark, and someone else complained to an usher about the pause that, we’d been told, was needed to clean the stage between one bubble of dancers leaving it and the next bubble of dancers taking over.

I’d forgotten how the sound of the dancers’ breathing increases your appreciation of their effort, and how much the sound of their feet sharpens your vision. I’d also forgotten how forcefully stage design affects your perception of choreography. Like Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering, Vicente Nebrada’s non-narrative Our Waltzes consists of a solo onstage piano and five couples, each dressed in a different colour. With every featured pas de deux, the cyclorama changed colour to match the costumes, interrupting the dances’ continuous flow and distracting from each couple’s individual qualities. 

Dancers of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Our Waltzes. Photographs by Johan Persson.

Will Tuckett’s new Lazuli Sky reminded me of William Forsythe’s work in its structural complexity, and its choreographic invention challenged you to keep up. As a result, the video projections that accompanied it seemed superfluous, particularly in the first movement. A shape-shifting geometric outline appeared on the downstage scrim, the hypnotic shapelessness of smoke and sea roiled across the cyc, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the dancers.

In the slower second section, however, the stately folding and fanning of Samuel Wyer’s long ribbed skirts carved subtle increments of distance between the dancers, magnifying the space between their twining, non-touching hands and limbs. Enhanced by these costumes, the isolation we’ve all felt for months materialised in movement that reached us without the deadening effect of artificial barriers, simply because we’d gathered to share its expression in the same room as the dancers.

As I drafted this article, the government announced another national lockdown to start on November 5. Among other things, the news ruined English National Ballet’s plans to return to Sadler’s Wells on November 19 in order to stage the five new works created months ago for streaming. Encouraging when it occurred, the BRB performance in that theatre now feels almost unreal, like a flash of direct personal communication that we might have imagined.

The Lazuli Sky programme will be available to view online until November 8. Tickets cost £10 to £20 per device. Go to brb.org.uk/lazuli-sky-film for further information.

Main photograph: Ryan Felix in Lazuli Sky. Photograph by Johan Persson

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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