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Shiny trinkets by Barbara Newman

Posted on November 16, 2017

Michael Somes once reported that in the early days of the Vic-Wells Ballet, Ninette de Valois would ask Frederick Ashton for “a romantic ballet at Christmas and then a 20-minute abstract ballet by Easter.” Years later she justified her demands: “There was no repertoire – there was a vacuum… The work had to be done.”

Since then, the repertoire has become large enough to choke a horse, so ballets are made for other reasons. Despite his respect for history, David Bintley has declared, “A ballet company should not be a museum. It should be active creatively…” To back his beliefs, his Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) has joined forces with Sadler’s Wells in an initiative entitled Ballet Now, funded predominantly by the Oak Foundation, that will support the choreographers, composers and designers of two original ballets a year for five years.

Selected and mentored, explains the press release, by established professionals and “experts in the dance industry,” the chosen artists – none of them beginners – will enjoy both the opportunity of working on a large scale with a major ballet company and the “freedom to champion artistic innovation, risk taking and new choreographic practice.”

This courageous plan is an important one: recent evidence suggests that choreographers entrusted with a big stage and a big company need all the mentoring they can get. Ruth Brill’s Arcadia, for example, created for BRB in June, goes in one eye and out the other, leaving the faintest impression behind.

Portrayed by Brandon Lawrence at Sadler’s Wells, the bounding god Pan gambols flirtatiously with three interchangeable nymphs before zeroing in on the moon goddess. These four women share the same limited vocabulary, passing it back and forth like a gift no one really wants, and the good-natured ensemble prances cheerfully through the predictable patterns of generic folk dancing. Though John Harle’s modern jazz score tossed Brill a vivid musical lifeline, she missed the chance to sustain her flimsy ideas with its spicy rhythms and intriguing texture.

You might think, charitably, of L’Après-midi d’un faune or Daphnis and Chloë, or you might simply appreciate seeing dance shaped, however weakly, for a certain purpose. Some choreographers don’t bother with that. Based on a novel published in 1925 and the 1928 silent film drawn from it, Arthur Pita’s The Wind for The Royal Ballet turns a lurid narrative into a melodramatic dumbshow, “heavy on scenery, light on dancing,” as one disappointed viewer observed.

A woman arrives in the Wild West, marries, is raped, and loses her mind, driven mad by the wind, violence and loneliness. Most of the dancing, such as it is, belongs to her and a clutch of swaggering ranch hands. A few ranchers’ women also kick up their heels and a few totemic figures haunt the action, but the incessant wind from three hulking machines muffles everyone in flapping leather fringe, voluminous skirts and trailing wigs. As the heroine on opening night, Natalia Osipova emoted bravely through her “wedding” while struggling to keep her veil from blowing across her face. Perhaps that gave her a more satisfying challenge than collapsing in a quivering heap to convey emotional anguish.

Imagine Christopher Bruce’s atmospheric Ghost Dances and the graphic sexuality of Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation watered down to illustrative poses and realistic gestures. Or imagine Rodeo or Billy the Kid – if you’ve never seen them, treat yourself to a YouTube performance – stripped of drama and reduced to cowboy clichés.

In place of expressive movement, Pita offers us mugging, machinery, streaming lengths of silk and a rolling handcar pumped along railway tracks. Would you consider this risk-taking? Innovative? It looked to me like a shameful waste of the dancers’ talent and the troupe’s resources, an indulgent amalgamation of Broadway production values and cheap sentiment that pushes the company towards artistic obscurity.

Pictured: Brandon Lawrence in Ruth Brill’s Arcadia. Photograph: Ty Singleton.

 

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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