Celine Gittens, Samara Downs, Arancha Baselga and Laura Jane Gibson in George Balanchine's 'Serenade'.  Photo © Roy Smiljanic

Birmingham Royal Ballet in George Balanchine’s ‘Serenade’.
Photo © Roy Smiljanic

London Coliseum, London, UK; March 21, 2015

Charlotte Kasner

There are few things more sublime than sitting in the Coli, the jewel in the crown on London’s period theatres, experiencing “Serenade”. It has to be one of the most perfect ballets ever created and approaches near-worship when realised well.

Like a familiar, much-loved poem, there is a frisson of expectation as its scenes unfold: the girl who falls, the girl who is slowly, almost invisibly turned in a pirouette by the man at her feet. Then, of course, the incredible cortege at the finale, the curtain lowering as the dancers exit.

The pale blue echoes a moonlit night, the young girls at their first ball perhaps and then suffering an early death, maybe to echo Willis or shades, or sylphs.

There are so many layers in this seminal ballet and BRB acquit themselves well.

Tchaikovsky’s music is the epitome of Russian national writing, although it was not always perfectly realised by the Royal ballet Sinfonia. There was some decidedly dodgy intonation in the violins at the beginning and Robert Gibbs conducting lacked assurance at times.

It is tempting to say “and now for something completely different,” but, oddly enough, “Carmina burana” has quite a few similarities with “Serenade” in spite of the fact that they may appear unlikely bedfellows. Both deal with the cycle of life and death, both reference the moon.

Having only ever seen a recording of Carmina (this was its first staging in London for almost two decades), it was interesting to see it live on a roomy stage and to be reminded that it is only recently that the cantata has been sung without accompanying staging. There are hints of Denis Wheatley in Philip Prowse’s set with its giant crosses that fly in and out and chug from black to white to red. Then the tone flips to a jokey night club setting with strips of coloured lights and, at the end, a circle of chasers enclosing a broken heart.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Carmina burana'.  Photo © Roy Smiljanic

Birmingham Royal Ballet in ‘Carmina burana’.
Photo © Roy Smiljanic

It never really gets to grips with the darkness and sheer baseness of the text, with Bintley seemingly more concerned with a sometimes superficial interpretation of the music. He often illustrates every note with a step and the girls trip through like delicate little fauns rather than the grotesque sluts of the dog Latin text.

Fortune is invoked as a black-glad siren but there is no sense of the vita detestabilis or the sors immanis et inanis that the text describes. It is a jokey tale of naughty priests – more Fathers Ted and Dougal caught in the largest lingerie department in Ireland than the depravity, corruption, gluttony that rotate in the eternal cycle of life in which its protagonists are trapped that Orff invokes.

There are witty moments – the pregnant girls popping up like the shades in “Bayadere” in “Veris leta facies”, the spring that finally turns the mood to brief gaiety, the priests bursting forth like garish flowers in multi colours having shed the cloth.

Nao Sakuma as Roast Swan with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet.  Photo © Roy Smiljanic

The Roast Swan (here, Nao Sakuma) with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet.
Photo © Roy Smiljanic

It is difficult with a necessarily young company to convey the haggard wrecks that beg the shopkeeper to give them cosmetics to make the young men love them against their will, but it is not even hinted at here. “Hinc equitavit” is funny though, with the men “riding” their chairs off stage as if astride 1960s scooters.

The dance, “On the Green”, is leaden and evokes Breughelian peasants not the light-footed pas de deux I feel it should be.

The literal evocation of the roasted swan is probably the best section of the work. Daria Stanciulescu’s, svelte, feather fan-wielding swan is terrific and supported by the best vocals of the evening from Jeremy Budd. She is carried in a pretty impressive chafing dish too.

The Abbot of Cockaigne with his assembly of drinkers is also one of the points where the text is properly illustrated, the clergyman beating his chest on “ego” like a silver backed gorilla.

In the tavern (“In taberna quando sumus”), we hear that man is burning inside with violent anger, like a leaf played with by the winds, carried along by a surfeit of alcohol like a ship without a helmsman. We see a polite pub that at worst might be a little rowdy. This is not a tavern full of pimps, prostitutes, fallen monks and nuns and robbers but a few naughty seminarians thumbing their noses. Joy of life has not been taken away by fate.

Victoria Marr as Fortuna and Iain Mackay as the Third Seminarian in Carmina burana.  Photo © Roy Smiljanic

Victoria Marr as Fortuna and Iain Mackay as the Third Seminarian in Carmina burana.
Photo © Roy Smiljanic

So, we should now have worked ourselves up into a frenzy for the orgy, except that it never really happens. The two protagonists dance a polite pas de deux and then just stand there as the chorus sing “Veni, veni, venias, ne me mori facias” (Come, come o come, do not let me die). But it appears they haven’t and he has. “My virginity makes me frisky” sings the girl but Madeleine Pierard’s heavy-voiced soprano, laden with vibrato sounded mostly nervous.

Then there we are, the wretched wheel of fate turning again, Fortune holding all to hostage.

It was not supported well by Ex Cathedra who sang with all the stops in and with the delicacy that their name suggests rather than the earthy gusto that the work demands. The trebles were good though.

This is fun and watchable but there is a sense that an opportunity has been missed, the text often ignored or misunderstood. It is busy but there is no time to get to grips with Orff and just get down and dirty.

Get to see this though as we will not have an opportunity next year. The Coli seems to be the main target of the ever-present assault on the arts. In spite of being the most suitable venue to host major visiting companies as well as our own ENB and BRB, not to mention their own cracking opera productions such as the stupendous Benvenuto Cellini, the knives have been wielded and the pressure is on to provide musicals.

It is not clear where ballet and opera productions are meant to go, but obviously a West End full of commercial productions has been deemed insufficient and we must have similar at the Coli. We are not quite back in the days when White Horse Inn invaded the premises and desecrated the glorious frontage with a giant cuckoo clock of a Swiss chalet but nevertheless BRB will not be here next spring.
Enjoy them while you can.