Shakespeare Dream Bill: Birmingham Royal Ballet

Autumn is finally here and with it comes a new season of theatre and dance. Leading the charge are Birmingham Royal Ballet with their Shakespeare triple bill, inspired by this year’s 400th anniversary celebrations. I was fortunate enough to see them strut their stuff at The Lowry as part of my birthday.

Opening the mixed programme is a brand new work choreographed by Jessica Lang and inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets. Wink, named for the opening line of Sonnet 43 (“when most I wink, then do mine eyes best see”) is broken down into contrasting sections that reflect different themes of the poems: the first is a sombre reflection on death, with the seemingly lifeless bodies of the female soloists manipulated by the male dancers, whilst the next is a giddy dance of celebration, all fast footwork and petit allegro.

Jakub Ciupinski’s specially commissioned score is the perfect accompaniment to these segments, but the most memorable parts of Wink are those where there is no music at all. Occasionally, an audio recording of actor Alfie Jones reading extracts from the sonnets is used in place of the orchestra – seeing the dancers move to the rhythm of the spoken poetry brings both their musicality and their emotional impetus to life. Shakespeare’s words are further incorporated into the work via the costumes, which feature transparent white mesh printed with his handwriting. This gives the beautiful impression that the poems are written onto the dancers’ skin.

Another element of ‘winking’ is brought into the ballet via the use of large black and white panels on two sides of the stage. As the dancers move around and between the panels, they revolve and flash from black to white, thereby creating an optical illusion. While this feature is cleverly incorporated into the choreography in places, the endless spinning does ultimately become quite distracting.

The second work, The Moor’s Pavane, takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello, condensing the plot into 23 minutes and reducing the cast down to four key characters: The Moor, The Moor’s Wife, His Friend and His Friend’s Wife (its subtitle is Variations on the theme of Othello.) Such editing is obviously no mean feat. Rather than create rushed miniature scenes, choreographer José Limón makes ingenious use of traditional Renaissance dance forms such as the pavane to frame the story and provide the basis for character interactions. A handkerchief device is employed to trick Othello/the Moor: he gives it to his wife/Desdemona as a gift, before it is stolen by Emilia/the Friend’s Wife and passed to the Friend/Iago in order to dupe the husband into believing his wife is unfaithful.

Authentic Renaissance costumes in rich colours help to identify the characters – the bold, flirtatious Emilia is instantly recognisable thanks to her sweeping red gown, whilst Desdemona is marked out by her pure white dress.

Purcell’s stately 17th century music imbues the ballet with authenticity, but its measured tempo and heavy pauses also induce a feeling of monotony. Limón’s choreography borrows from the period, with simple, dignified steps to match the music. This aura is shattered when movement becomes non-literal – for instance, when Iago starts to poison Othello against Desdemona, he wraps his body around his rival and whispers into his ear. This modern choreography is both dramatic and effective at conveying the story, but jars with what has gone before it.

Completing the triple bill is the most familiar work of all – Frederick Ashton’s hour-long retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (It’s also one of my absolute favourite ballets.) The Dream posits the action of Shakespeare’s popular comedy in a moonlit, shadowy forest full of fairies that sparkle as brightly as Mendelssohn’s gorgeous music (brought vividly to life by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia). Oberon and Titania are the stars, fighting over a changeling boy – their feud results in the fairy queen’s drug-induced attraction to the half-mortal, half-donkey Bottom. Interspersed with these antics is the love “triangle” between Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius, further complicated by fairy meddling.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s version of The Dream zips along at almost whirlwind pace – perhaps it merely seems rushed after the measured Moor’s Pavane, but the heightened tempo does mean some comic moments are lost. It gets plenty of laughs nonetheless, particularly at Helena and Hermia’s catfight and the moment when Titania sets (bewitched) eyes on Bottom, who is scratching himself against a tree.

Unfortunately, Cesar Morrales’ Oberon lacks the necessary power and presence to dominate his forest kingdom. He is a last minute stand-in for an injured Chi Cao however, and this may also explain the slightly flat final duet with Titania (Nao Sakuma) – it should be the highlight of the ballet, but doesn’t quite nail the desired romantic, dreamy quality.

Nonetheless, this triple bill is an excellent showcase of the variety of Shakespeare’s works and the extent of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s talents. It’s a crying shame that the audience at The Lowry wasn’t bigger.

Next week, I’ll be reporting on a world premier: Akram Khan’s Giselle. Excited just doesn’t cover it!

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