Birmingham Royal Ballet returned to Sadler’s Wells with a triple bill new to London audiences. Curated by Carlos, for which Carlos Acosta, whose fairly recent appointment as Artistic Director has until now, been somewhat thwarted by the pandemic – clearly has a plan for his company. His hopes are to move it forward into the here and now, presenting it in a fresh and exciting new light. There is no doubt that his choices are bold and certainly for the first work, quite a departure from the repertoire which BRB audiences might expect. The first thing to note is that Acosta is not afraid to push relatively unknown choreographers and present them alongside internationally well-known creators, such as Goyo Montero, whose work is less familiar to most UK audiences. This is a positive move.
The first two works on the programme are Ballet Now commissions shown for the first time in June this year at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Former Rambert dancer and choreographer, Miguel Altunaga, has created City of a Thousand Trades which he describes as a love letter to Birmingham. Working with dramaturg Madeleine Kludje, this is entirely contemporary with its many themes, explored and easily grasped. He has looked at the history, the industrial revolution and managed to bring it to life in an inclusive way. With a newly commissioned score by Mathias Coppens, which had the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in the pit (under the baton of Koen Kessels) and percussionists Kevin Earley and Grahame King on a structure above the stage, all the elements made the emerging scenes and snapshots of lives easy to digest. With Birmingham Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey, doing voiceovers as well as individuals talking about their immigrant experiences, the work builds slowly but surely with passages of compelling, rapid ensemble work and brief solos. Industry is represented by large poles and blocks, diligently shifted around the stage and incorporated into phrases of varying degrees of crescendo. There is even a nod to the heavy metal scene and Black Sabbath. The dancers, so highly trained in the pulled up posture of classical ballet, appeared to have adapted well to Altunaga’s very contemporary style. In particular, Tyrone Singleton, Brandon Lawrence and new recruit Eric Pinto Cata, soared through the air with apparent ease. A mention too for guest artist, Hannah Rudd, also a former Rambert dancer, who never fails to deliver anything less than the superlative.
Daniela Cardim’s Imminent was far less effective. The structure of the choreography was clean enough, beautifully lit by Peter Teigen with eye-catching designs by April Dalton. Paul Englishby’s commissioned, filmic score was fulsome and danceable, but I understood this was supposed to create an atmosphere of anxiety – of the dancers fearing the advent of catastrophe or unwelcome change. The patterns and shapes drawn for the dancers were clear and the swarming from one end of the stage to the other gave the impression of migrant birds. But whatever its ultimate message, this did not transmit across the footlights. What began as a promising neo-classical piece, petered out and felt rather flat at its conclusion – some very good dancing came and went without many memorable moments.
So to the grand finale, Chacona. Montero’s vast experience was evident from the start. The excitement surrounding this particular performance was initially to do with the inclusion of a world premiere in the form of a duet for Acosta and guest ballerina, Alessandra Ferri. Montero has added this to his 2017 production of Chacona, which he created for Ballet Nacional de Sodre in Montevideo. The sheer charisma, star quality and colossal stage presence of these two great artists rather put everything else into perspective. Set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chorale Prelude No 3 and played at the rear of the stage by pianist Jonathan Higgins, Ferri and Acosta weaved in and out of the 16 other dancers on stage, all grace and lyricism. In spite of being very much in the twilight of their dancing careers, the choreography seeks to enhance their special qualities and one can only watch with admiration at the beauty which still emanates from both dancers. The rest of the performance is focused only on the ensemble (to Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No 2 in D minor) with Robert Gibbs on the violin and then Tom Ellis on guitar. The best ballets are those that express and become one with the music and Chacona does just this. Its geometrical patterns, constantly evolving with moments of stillness, lines and diagonals which swing and emerge to form yet more patterns, all happen seamlessly. The never-ending symmetry is deeply satisfying.
This slightly uneven programme nevertheless bodes well for BRB. Contrasts and standards would have been more in evidence if all three ballets had not been so ensemble driven and perhaps more representative of the company as a whole if the casts had been made up of corps de ballet members and not mainly principals and soloists. While this could have been a Covid/bubble related issue (and it was simply thrilling to see Acosta and Ferri on stage again), if Acosta really wants to reach the heights of his BRB vision, motivation is paramount. Putting the upper echelons of the company in group numbers may have the opposite effect, no matter how high the standard is.