Momoko Hirata in Theme and Variations Photo Bill Cooper

Momoko Hirata in Theme and Variations
Photo Bill Cooper

Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham
October 8, 2015

David Mead

Variations they called the evening, and with a mix of out and out Balanchine classicism, contemporary ballet from the fast-rising Alexander Whitley, and gloriously understated Englishness from Frederick Ashton, it certainly lived up to its billing.

Theme and Variations is a masterpiece in pretty much every way, and stands far better when danced alone than when as the final part of the four-section Tchaikovsky Suite No.3 from which it taken. Set amid Peter Farmer’s icy set, it’s grand and structurally complex with some wonderful patterning. It’s a celebration of pure dance; a feast of Russian classicism, but with some typically Balanchine modern twists.

The ballet is terribly exposing, but as the lead couple, Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley barely put a foot wrong. Hirata revels in roles like this and she in particular was magnificent. There was, on occasion, a typically British softening of the ports de bras, but what footwork! To say it was precise and sharp barely does her justice. She not only dealt with the increasingly demanding choreography with apparent ease, but looked like she was having a whale of a time doing so. In Caley she found a sensitive partner, who when his chance came showed off some top notch leaps and turns.

Theme and Variations is not only a dance for the principal couple though. Typically, Balanchine gives the supporting four couples and corps their moments in the spotlight and all shone. Down in the orchestra pit, conductor Paul Murphy took the Tchaikovsky at a suitably cracking pace.

Right from the stark, sleek opening vision of the dancers standing in silhouette, Alexander Whitley’s Kin. could hardly be more different in appearance and mood. What it does have in common with Theme and Variations is class, and lots of it.

Whitley started his dance career at Birmingham Royal Ballet but found his passions lay more with contemporary dance, where he has established himself as a choreographer of note, both with Rambert and his own company. The title, Kin., is not only a reference to relationships that are quite apparent in the choreography, especially in the central pas de deux, but is also meant to be read as an abbreviation of ‘kinetic’ in relation to movement (that full stop is important).

Kin. (dancers here Yijing Zhang and Brandon Lawrence) Photo Bill Cooper

(dancers Yijing Zhang and Brandon Lawrence)
Photo Bill Cooper

The modernist ballet is a superb bringing together of classical and contemporary dance. The choreography is rooted in the classical but is equally full of modern curves and far-reaching extensions. Pedestrian movement gets a look in too, along with floorwork.

An essential part of Kin. is Phil Kline’s four-movement string quartet The Blue Room and Other Stories. It has a range of energies, but veined through the whole piece is an edgy sense of foreboding, of angst, pain and uncertainty that Whitley taps into well. It’s a feeling that’s helped along by Jean-Marc Pusissant’s gorgeous black costumes and set of strategically placed double doors and marble-bottomed pillars.

Elisha Willis in the lead role constantly seems to be reaching out, yet failing to find whatever it is she is searching for as she ties herself in knots physically and in her mind. It’s a sense that continues even in the more lyrical pas de deux of the third movement. A dance of delicacy and tenderness, partner Joseph Caley offers support, but Willis is unsure, and initially constantly approaches then pulls away. When they do finally connect the choreography flows wonderfully, and includes some inventive lifts as the two bodies weave and caress one another.

The tempo ups in the final movement, which features a dramatic all-action solo (Tzu-chao Chou) before the dancers disperse as the piece closes. The sense of energy remains, though.

Kin. may be Whitley’s first commission from the company, I’ll lay odds it will not the last.

Any number of ballets are described as ‘English’ but are any quite as English as Frederick Ashton’s Enigma Variations? Set to Edward Elgar’s familiar music, and with designs that evoke perfectly an Edwardian country house and garden, the series of musical portraits of the composer, his friends and family are often beautifully nuanced. And while there is clearly much feeling by Lady Elgar towards her husband, Enigma is a ballet that’s essentially about friendship, not love, not romance, just simple friendship, and in that sense it is like
no other.

The composer was prone to self-doubt, and as much as Ashton captures this in the choreography, it requires an excellent actor to fully portray it on stage. Jonathan Payn cut a fine Elgar. His detachment and often contemplative, near-brooding expression depicted perfectly the uncertainties going on in his mind. In most relationships, it’s the small things that matter most. Silences and looks, those times when nothing is said, are at least as important as those times when we talk – or dance. Samara Downs was most elegant as the deeply caring Lady Elgar, reaching out to her husband, showing her feelings by simply resting her head lovingly on his shoulders. It was a most mature and rather affecting performance. When the couple finally dance to Nimrod (with Valentin Olovyannikov as Jaeger), the choreography may be almost entirely pedestrian movement and everyday gesture, but it’s as full of romantic longing as the soaring score. The final run and reaching out towards the audience was near-perfect.

Enigma Variations Valentin Olovyannikov as A. J. Jaeger and Jonathan Payn as Edward Elgar Photo Bill Cooper

Enigma Variations
Valentin Olovyannikov as Jaeger and Jonathan Payn as Elgar
Photo Bill Cooper

Enigma Variations César Morales as Arthur Troyte Griffith Photo Bill Cooper

Enigma Variations
César Morales as Arthur Troyte Griffith
Photo Bill Cooper

Elsewhere, César Morales was a suitably brusque and all-action Troyte, and technically excellent too; Elisha Willis captured the skittish Dorabella well with plenty of use of the back that Ashton so loved; and Tzu-chao Chou was all bounce and energy as George Robinson Sinclair, or rather his bulldog, Dan, paddling in the River Wye having fallen in.

There’s always a worry in a ballet like Enigma that is so closely associated with the original cast, and that requires such good actor-dancers, that its power to move you will be no more. More than most, to work, the ballet needs performers who do not just portray the characters, but who for a moment at least become the characters. It got them here, and the magic is still there.

Theme and Variations and Enigma Variations continues on tour to Sadler’s Wells, London and Theatre Royal, Plymouth Plymouth, where they will be danced with David Bintley’s The King Dances.