BRB Triple: Checkmate, Symphonic Variations, Pineapple Poll, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, October 2011Posted on 20 October 2011
The tranquil centre of this triple bill is Symphonic Variations, one of Frederick Ashton’s greatest ballets. He produced it in spring 1946 as something of an antidote to the recent war, providing a wonderful serenity to the mystical calm of César Franck’s music. Yet for the dancers this serenity is a great challenge. The six of them must function perfectly together, almost as if they were a corps de ballet, though the choreography is not remotely corps de ballet material. For instance those low lifts in which the girl performs flickering airborne beats are very hard, but the six dancers on Wednesday evening made it look easy. This is a triumph for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, which can now take this treasure around the country to audiences unfamiliar with it.
The six dancers, with Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in the centre, and Arancha Baselga, Laura-Jane Gibson, Jamie Bond and Tzu-Chao Chou on the sides, worked beautifully together. It is invidious to pick out any one dancer, since all were so good, but I do find it remarkable that the two side girls both danced red pawns in the previous ballet, Checkmate. Neither of them is yet a soloist, but they are obviously destined for greater things and Arancha Baselga’s musicality shone through among a very musical cast. The essence of this ballet is Franck’s music with its sublime blending of orchestra and piano, played here by Jonathan Higgins, and Ashton’s choreography shows his extraordinary ability to fit dance with music. This one piece is worth the whole Triple Bill, and is a lovely contrast to the first and last items, which are full of action.
The evening starts with Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate to music by Arthur Bliss, created in 1937 for the Vic-Wells Ballet, the progenitor of the Royal Ballet. Philip Ellis’s conducting gave the music a quietly mysterious feel at the start of the prologue, but it gradually built as the chess game commenced. Samara Downs was a prettily seductive black queen, and Chi Cao showed fine stage presence and a wonderfully firm line as the first red knight. The battle of chess pieces is an ideal precursor to Symphonic Variations, and the evening found a perfect ending in Pineapple Poll.
Poll is based on W.S. Gilbert’s tale, ‘The Bumboat Woman’s Story’, as to some extent is the Gilbert and Sullivan opera HMS Pinafore. The ballet is John Cranko’s, using music by Sullivan arranged by Charles Mackerras, along with Osbert Lancaster’s glorious designs. Cranko’s story gives us a younger heroine, extra romance, and it’s all huge fun. The Bumboat woman, Pineapple Poll was delightfully danced by Elisha Willis, with César Morales as her adored Captain Belaye, superbly stylised and dancing his hornpipe with delightful panache. Laura Purkiss was charmingly sweet as his fiancée, with Victoria Marr as her absent-minded aunt who turns into Britannia wrapped in a union jack at the end, and Mathias Dingman was Jasper, who finally gets his girl, the lovely Poll. For sheer exhilaration and the ability to tell a story in dance this is as good as it gets.
This fine BRB triple bill opens an intriguing window on the development of British ballet in the mid-twentieth century. From Ninette de Valois’s Checkmate before the Second World War, to the Ashton’s Symphonic Variations immediately after it, and then to Cranko’s Pineapple Poll in 1951. All are creations of British choreographers and designers, and apart from Franck, so is the music.
Performances continue at the Theatre Royal Plymouth on October 25 and 26 — for more details click here.