Birmingham Royal Ballet: The King Dances, Carmina burana
Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham
June 17, 2015
As part of the marking of his twentieth anniversary of taking over as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley chose a double bill of his latest project, The King Dances, a ballet inspired by and freely based on Le Ballet de la Nuit of 1653, in which King Louis XIV of France appeared as Apollo, the Sun God; and Carmina burana, his first work after taking over back in 1995. It proved to be an evening of strong imagery and dramatic staging all-round, but one where the triumph was Fortuna’s.
In The King Dances, Bintley explores the journey male dancing from mid-seventeenth-century Versailles to today. He imagines that long night and a private dance for Louis (William Bracewell) and his close circle that was far removed from the formal state balls that were part of his public world. The result is an interesting and often visually extremely appealing ballet, but one I suspect will sadly struggle to pull in audiences.
The staging is striking with the emphasis well on truly on the mysterious, on darkness and the night. But right from the off there are hints of gold to come as the curtain rises to reveal eight men, centre stage, each with a large flambeau ablaze, the flames lighting the otherwise black stage, casting ever moving shadows.
In keeping with the period that inspired it, Bintley’s ballet is very much a dance for the men, with them even taking the role of the Mesdames. It’s divided into four watches, each representing three hours.
The First Watch is serene and refined, and is stolen by Iain Mackay as the tall, stately, mysterious and quite frankly rather handsome La Nuit (Cardinal Mazarin). Here more than anywhere Bintley neatly combines period court dance with today’s rather more expansive ballet vocabulary. Despite the occasional appearance of fast pirouettes and leaps that we are used to today, there are times when it seems very one-paced though. Katrina Lindsay’s designs are particularly elegant here; the rather clever leather-looking modern take on frocks of the time looking very good indeed.
I’m not sure I’d want to listen to it on its own, but the commissioned score by Stephen Montague, with its nods towards the seventeenth century, alongside more contemporary dissonance fits the choreography rather well.
The ballet’s sole female appears in the Second Watch, when Selene, la Lune (the moon), danced by Yijing Zhang, who dances a duet with the King (the Sun King dancing with the Moon Goddess). Again, it’s a combination of past and present, parts of it reflecting the coolness of male-female dance of Louis’ time, but it seemed a little too perfunctory and lacking.
It’s accepted that Louis suffered with nightmares, and more dramatic is the Third Watch, a very bad dream indeed in which demons, werewolves and magicians show up and rough up him up a little before carrying him away. La Nuit, the Cardinal, also reappears here as the devil, although his red costume and horns look rather comic book and about as unscary as they come.
When dawn comes, the Sun King is truly born. Bracewell is quite a sight, a golden sun headdress atop his head, his golden curls cascading over his shoulders. But as for his close-fitting, gold, metallic, one-piece suit, let’s just say that maybe one day I might even come to like that too…maybe.
‘Big’, that’s the word. With its huge cast, Philip Prowse’s dominating designs including giant crosses and a huge cracked heart, Carl Orff’s stirring music, and the Ex-Cathedra choir in full voice, Carmina burana is a blockbuster of a ballet in every sense.
The ballet is really three separate stories, each featuring a seminarian who succumbs to temptation and who discovers the ways of the world. Jaimie Bond was wide-eyed with wonder as the Naïve Boy, while Elisha Willis was perfect as the blonde, pony-tailed Lover Girl, leading him on before going back to guy she really loves. Mathias Dingman never quite boiled over as Boiling Rage, although Daria Stanciulescu’s Roast Swan was a delectable dish indeed.
Both sections have their humorous moments not least the heavily pregnant women the Naïve Boy runs across, and the obscenely bloated gluttons who feast on the swan. There are plenty of social references too (Bintley admits the ballet is part autobiographical): sheets hanging on the line, orange haired mods in purple suits, yobs in garish Hawaiian shirts, and a take on a 1960s dance hall.
Carmina is a ballet that gets better as it goes on though, and the best of the best is left to last, and the meeting of Sick with Love, the third seminarian, with Fortuna in the Court of Love. As Goddess of Fate, of course she’s been in charge right from off, and could there be a more alluring Fortuna than Céline Gittens? You can hardly blame Sick with Love, Tyrone Singleton, for falling for her. She leads him on, tempting him to strip off before the pair dance a deliciously sexy duet. Everyone but he can see just where this is going, and sure enough, just when he thinks he’s won her, she reminds him just who in in charge and dramatically tosses him aside.
The King may have danced, but it was Fortuna who ruled the evening, and Carmina to which the audience rose.
The birth of ballet during King Louis XIV of France’s reign is to be the subject of a forthcoming BBC Four documentary. The King Who Invented Ballet, to be presented by David Bintley, and that will include a film of his new ballet, is due for transmission later this summer.