Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells [Checkmate … Symphonic Variations … Pineapple Poll]


Black Queen – Victoria Marr
Red Knight – Iain Mackay
Red Queen – Jenna Roberts
Red King – Jonathan Payn

Arthur Bliss – Music
Ninette de Valois – Choreography
E. McKnight Kauffer – Design
John B. Read – Lighting

Symphonic Variations

Dancers – Natasha Oughtred, Nao Sakuma, Elisha WillisJoseph Caley, Chi Cao, César Morales

César Franck – Music
Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Sophie Fedorovitch – Design
Peter Teigen – Lighting

Pineapple Poll

Robert Parker – Captain Belaye
Carol-Anne Millar – Pineapple Poll
Tzu-Chao Chou – Jasper
Arancha Baselga – Blanche
Victoria Marr – Mrs Dimple

Arthur Sullivan arr. Charles Mackerras – Music
John Cranko – Choreography
Osbert Lancaster – Designs
Neil Austin – Lighting

Jonathan Higgins (piano) [Symphonic Variations]

Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Philip Ellis

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 18 October, 2011
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

This is the triple bill that London ballet-goers have been looking forward to the most – three superb works from this country’s unrivalled dance heritage: Dame Ninette de Valois’s still-striking Checkmate, a ballet born out of form and structure yet conveying narrative and humanity; Pineapple Poll, John Cranko’s cartoon-book romp to the music of Sullivan, masterfully arranged by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, and, at its centre, the lustrous pearl of Sir Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations, the blueprint for the English style of classical dancing. All three works feature in their original, irreplaceable, designs.

The Birmingham troupe certainly has Checkmate in its blood – it has been in uninterrupted performance by the company and its predecessors (starting with the Vic-Wells Ballet) since its premiere in 1937. It certainly looked good on the Sadler’s Wells stage, E. McKnight Kauffer’s wondrous backcloth and costumes eye-catching and inventive. The designer, an American, is perhaps best known for his posters for the London Underground Tube network in the 1930s, and it is possible to see his bold and confident use of colour and easy mastery of form in these totemic designs. Essentially a game of chess in ballet form (the idea came originally from Arthur Bliss), de Valois’s ballet (she had no idea about the rules of chess) transforms it into the struggle between Love and Death, hence their personifications opening the ballet seated at a chess board (Rory Mackay’s sinister, masked Death figure made its mark, cocking his head malevolently in making his decision over who to take). The ballet is given a human edge despite all the evocations of the board game (the dancers do not follow the strict rules in their movements), the heroic Red Knight – an impetuous and valiant Iain Mackay – seduced by the cruel Black Queen, his moment of weakness in sparing her life, cruelly rewarded by her with a stab in the back. The final hunting down of the old, frail Red King brings shivers to the spine. Victoria Marr oozed both sex and sadism as the Black Queen, a true siren who lures the Red Knight to his death and implacably hunts down the Red King, stealing his crown in his dying moments as her forces take his life. She has the speed of movement allied to a lush quality which fit this rewarding part like a glove. A notable portrayal. Jonathan Payn’s Red King was curiously bland – company director David Bintley was superb in the role, coached by the choreographer herself, his humanity missed in Payn’s portrayal which, curiously, gave the impression that he was playing him as blind; a new take, if he was. Elsewhere the company danced with considerable gusto – this is a deceptively difficult work, requiring real ensemble and a total subsuming of character to portray these warring chess pieces. Jenna Roberts’s sad Red Queen was notable, her entreaties for peace quickly dismissed and her ‘piece’ removed violently from the board. Despite a few ‘parps’ in the brass, the orchestra attacked Bliss’s spirited, if slightly overlong score, with great brio, contributing richly to the mounting drama.

Pineapple Poll is, quite simply, barking mad: a silly concoction to a silly story – but it is adorable, funny and highly enjoyable. Essentially a young John Cranko’s essay in a Massine-style romp (think Gaîté Parisienne), it contains two peach roles – the heart-swooningly handsome Captain Belaye (commander of the HMS Hot Cross Bun) and Pineapple Poll herself, a Bumboat Woman. From such unpromising beginnings, he crafted an overlong but still hugely enjoyable comic ballet, full of heave-hoing jolly jack tars, swooning dock girls, a dippy fiancée and a dragon maiden aunt, all to the felicities of Charles Mackerras’s artful arrangement of Sullivan’s toe-tappable, hummable music. As the impossibly attractive Belaye, Robert Parker strutted with aplomb, his sailor’s walk judged to a tee and his dancing crisp, fast and accurate. Carol-Anne Millar is the company soubrette, that adorable demi-caractère dance with the fleetest feet, the airiest jump and an infectious personality. She looked as if she was having the most tremendous fun, and delivered her demanding steps with nonchalant ease. Millar was simply adorable. Tzu-Chao Chou is a new arrival to the company from Australia (originally from Taiwan) but, given the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, is already comfortable with the narrative idiom which characterises BRB. He gave a somewhat over-emphatic account of Poll’s admirer, the Pot Boy Jasper, but his crisp footwork and speed of movement promise much – he is also dancing The Red Knight in Checkmate. A word of praise for Victoria Marr, changed from Black Queen to maiden aunt, all busy-body fussiness – a richly comic portrayal and demonstrating her deep artistry.

At the centre of this infinitely satisfying triple bill stands Frederick Ashton’s shining Symphonic Variations, twenty minutes of sheer bliss, and still a stern test of the dancers, who never leave the stage. Sophie Fedorovitch’s setting and costumes looked superb, especially so in Peter Teigen’s sensitively and subtly modulated lighting, and the six dancers delivered this fiendishly challenging choreography with real style and care. Yes, this work is precious and stands at the very pinnacle of the achievements of ballet in this country, but, like the most treasured Stradivarius, it must be played to come alive. It is not a museum piece, but a living dance work which requires the oxygen of performance – congratulations to BRB for scheduling it when The Royal Ballet seems, at present, uninterested in its performance. Symphonic Variations is one of those works of art about which people speak in absolutes, and it is easy to think that no contemporary performance will ever be up to the mark set by the original cast in 1946. However, it seems more sensible to judge each performance on its merits, and certainly the first by BRB at Sadler’s Wells satisfied on almost every count. An exceptionally well-matched and cohesive sextet of dancers performed with mastery, carefully etching out Ashton’s limpid movements and lines, interacting with subtlety and transmitting the feeling of serenity which must pervade this work. No-one more so than Natasha Oughtred in Margot Fonteyn’s role who was nothing if not serene, a subtle smile playing across her lips in the final section. She brought clarity and evident control to her movement. Jonathan Higgins as piano soloist played idiomatically and the orchestra, responsive under Philip Ellis’s baton, as they were in the other ballets, made a most positive contribution to this successful performance of this most beautiful of works.

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