“Lazuli Sky” © Johan Persson

Birmingham Royal Ballet: Lazuli Sky

There were many things to celebrate when Birmingham Royal Ballet opened at Sadler’s Wells with a brand new triple bill last week. For a start, as Alistair Spalding said in his introduction, the last time the theatre had been ‘dark’ for so many months was during WW2. It is just over seven months since any live performances were presented and in spite of a mere 30% audience capacity, what was missing in numbers, was compensated for by the volume and enthusiasm emanating from those of us lucky enough to be there. As Spalding and Carlos Acosta stepped in front of the curtain and applause and cheering erupted, Spalding said with humility, “We’ve missed that sound!”  Acosta, who officially began his tenure as BRB’s newly appointed artistic director in January, has lost none of his determination by bringing us a triple bill with two new company premieres and a world premiere (his first commission as director). Although he will have been working furiously behind the scenes to get this all up and running, his pandemic-imposed delay in showcasing his ambitions for the company meant that this programme was his inaugural  –  and well worth the wait. Whilst the actual world premiere aired the previous week at the Birmingham Rep, he declared it was as good as a world premiere because, “It’s still hot from the oven!”

Tzu-Chao Chou & Miki Mizutani as Orange Couple in “Our Waltzes” © Johan Persson

The bill opened with a piece in which Acosta himself danced at the age of 18, by South American choreographer Vicente Nebrada. Our Waltzes, accompanied by onstage pianist, Jonathan Higgins, is a series of fluid dances for 5 couples. It’s full of charm, warmth and sweet romance and impeccably danced by all, but it nevertheless looks a little like the poor relation to Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.  However, it should be noted that although the dancers made light work of the choreography, with endless smooth transitions and general cohesion – the combination of change of direction and épaulement, difficult partnering work and the relentless demand to look graceful, make this a much more demanding ballet than it at first appears. Momoko Hirata and César Morales were particularly elegant as the Red Couple alongside Miki Mizutani and Tzu-Chao Chou, a vivacious Orange Couple.

Tom Rogers & Yu Kurihara in “Lazuli Sky” © Johan Persson

After a short pause, Brandon Lawrence danced Valery Panov’s solo, Liebestod, a vehicle to show off the male dancers in the company. To Wagner’s famous Tristan and Isolde, a scantily clad Lawrence begins curled up on the floor in the foetal position. Though he returns to this position at the close of the solo, the interim is like watching a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis.  As the music builds, so his movements become more expansive. Lawrence is magnificent, all liquid beauty, embellished with jetés that fly and swallow the stage with high octane energy. His line and perfectly proportioned limbs are wonderfully statuesque.

Brandon Lawrence in “Liebestod ” © Johan Persson

The much awaited Lazuli Sky, Will Tuckett’s new creation for BRB, did not disappoint. It was doubly pleasing to see Tuckett succeed so fully in a pure dance piece when he is so often associated with expertise in narrative works.  Think of his Olivier Award winning The Wind in the Willows; The Canterville Ghost for English National Ballet; Faeries or The Soldier’s Tale. In Lazuli Sky he reveals another facet to his innovation which is further enhanced by his directorial skills. He has managed to weave intricate patterns with twelve dancers that reflect perfectly the beautiful projections and designs (Samuel Wyer and Nina Dunn) and somehow make these movements look like a flock of migrating birds or creatures huddling together in safety. The title, inspired by the necessities of respecting the natural world during lockdown, owes its name to those blue skies we experienced and to the stone, Lapis Lazuli, known not just for its colour but for its healing and de-stressing properties.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in “Lazuli Sky” © Johan Persson

The projections depict fluffy clouds, rippling vegetation and other soothing aspects of nature. Tuckett has devised ways to make his dancers echo these calm-inducing backdrops. John Adams’ music, Shaker Loops, adds urgency and tranquility in equal measure but mostly it is the collective lyricism of the dancing that makes this piece a real pleasure to watch. At one point, five dancers in huge skirts, are introduced. The skirts (Wyer again) ingeniously act as shape-changers, folding, hiding or separating. There are some riveting duets, particularly for Tom Rogers and Yu Kurihara, but what this piece really gives us is a fresh looking perspective on the times, a bit of hope and a lot of Acosta and his company leaving us in no doubt that they have found a way to survive the miserable restrictions of 2020.

By Deborah Weiss

Stream available to watch until November 8th 2020 https://www.brb.org.uk/lazuli-sky-film