Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; October 15, 2013

Charlotte Kasner

Birmingham Royal Ballet in E=mc2. Photo Bill Cooper

Birmingham Royal Ballet in ‘E=mc2’.
Photo © Bill Cooper

The gremlins and fire demons were present with a vengeance at the opening of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Sadler’s Wells season, leading to the curtain going up nearly half an hour late, but that could not dim the delight in seeing “E=mc2” again. Following a belated apology from David Bintley, the company and orchestra got off to a fine start. Mathew Hinson’s score is a marvel and perfectly compliments the choreography. It educes thoughts of the powerhouse that produced the intellectual discoveries of the fin de siècle, calling to mind Schonberg and even Stravinsky in places.

The constituent parts of the equation are beautifully and excitingly illustrated in dance, Peter Mumford’s lighting making the dancers appear one minute disembodied and later united as their bodies interweave, part and chainée. The “Manhattan Project” section is as devastating as the first time that I saw it without ever straying into bad taste or parody.

“Tombeaux” is another old warhorse that similarly delights. I remember seeing the first run when Jasper Conran’s costumes brought well-deserved gasps from the audience. In those days, noted fashion designers working in dance was pretty much unheard of. Again, lighting and set are just right. The classicism is so well balanced that it never stands out for its own sake. It is more understated than, say Balanchine’s classical tributes, but none the worse for that. There are no showy fireworks, just serious and tricky footwork and lovely ports de bras. The subtleties well deserve this outing, which is all the more appreciated with the benefit of time.

Chi Cao as the Southern Cape Zebra in ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café. Photo © Bill Cooper

Chi Cao as the Southern Cape Zebra in ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café.
Photo © Bill Cooper

I must confess to feeling the same way about “‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café” as Dorothy Parker did about Winnie the Pooh. Now I like Southern Cape zebra as much as the next man, and Grévy’s and Plains zebras too for that matter, but Deborah Bull (bad name for a ballerina maybe, Madam,  but appropriate for this work at least), gets to the nub of the issue, when quoted in the programme as saying “I never thought of my character as an animal.” Exactly.

The overdose of anthropomorphism as much of a problem as are the mixed metaphors: zebra or witch doctor, flea or Morris dancer? Gary Larson can pull it off, but he is one of the few. I particularly detest the pesky Texas Kangaroo Rat in dungarees, although on balance feel that the Brazillian Woolly Monkey deserves his stripes. I’m with Kipling where the simians are concerned. I loved the quirky anarchy that was ‘The Penguins’, barring a few stalwarts, one never quite knew who would be playing with the orchestra from one gig to the next, or what they would be playing either. But for me, the score here doesn’t work as an orchestrated piece. It’s too tame and safe.

That said, the audience and the dancers obviously love it. Me? Well, unlike Dorothy I don’t want to “frow up” as much as reach for the insecticide and cartridges.