City of a Thousand Trades ★☆☆☆☆
City of a Thousand Trades
Dancers – Rosanna Ely, Sofia Liñares, Matilde Rodrigues, Hannah Rudd, Lucy Waine, Yijing Zhang, Callum Findlay-White, Brandon Lawrence, Gus Payne, Eric Pinto Cata, Tyrone Singleton, Shuailun Wu
Kevin Earley, Grahame King (pecussion)
Music – Mathias Coppens
Choreography – Miguel Altunaga
Designs – Giulia Scrimieri
Lighting – Michael Lee-Woolley
Poet and Voiceover – Casey Bailey
Dancers – Eilis Small, Alexander Yap, Tzu-Chao Chou, Miki Mizutani, Yaoqian Shang, Max Maslen, Alexandra Burman, Laura Day, Tori Forsyth-Hecken, Reina Fuchigami, Isabella Howard, Gabriel Anderson, Ryan Felix, Haoliang Feng, Lachlan Monaghan, Lennert Steegen
Royal Ballet Sinfonia
Music – Paul Englishby
Choreography – Daniela Cardim
Designs – April Dalton
Lighting – Peter Teigen
Dancers – Alessandra Ferri Carlos Acosta, Tori Forsyth-Hecken, Momoko Hirata, Yu Kurihara, Beatrice Parma, Rachele Pizzillo, Emma Price, Yaoqian Shang, Yuki Sugiura, Gabriel Anderson, Yasuo Atsuji, Tzu-Chao Chou, Mathias Dingman, Haoliang Feng, Lachlan Monaghan, César Morales, Alexander Yap
Jonathan Higgins (piano), Tom Ellis (guitar), Robert Gibbs (violin)
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 5 November, 2021
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
It is hard to think of a more dispiriting evening at the ballet. Carlos Acosta’s first calling card in London since assuming the directorship of Birmingham Royal Ballet has his name boldly stamped across it: ‘Curated by Carlos’. A pity then, that it proved little more than a trio of uninspired and uninspiring works which signal a wholesale shift away from the company’s choreographic traditions. That is not automatically a bad thing, provided that what is presented has genuine merit, but Miguel Altunaga, Daniela Cardim and Goyo Montero are simply not a patch on Ninette de Valois, Frederick Ashton, John Cranko, Kenneth MacMillan and David Bintley. Acosta is on record as stating that one-act works by those illustrious dance-makers will have no place in the company repertoire for at least five years, the better to allow for the establishment of a new, relevant corpus of work; on the evidence of this programme, it will not be an improvement.
There is little good to be said about Altunaga’s City of a Thousand Trades, purported as a celebration of the city of Birmingham: it is a contrived work focussing on the ‘trade-offs’ needed from those from around the world in order to settle into their new home town, a theme heavy on human stories and light on actual meaning. It is inspired by the work of several other contemporary choreographers: Crystal Pite has pretty much cornered the market in creating movement to illustrate the spoken word, but here it features as dancers move to the recorded testimonies of those who have moved to Birmingham; Hofesh Shechter’s trademark raised arms and lolloping gaits are evoked in another section, while a constricted pas de deux in a boxed-in space is heavily reminiscent of work by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León for Nederlands Dans Theater. Shechter’s penchant for placing heavy percussion on a raised platform at the back of the stage is also repeated here, the two players kept busy by the demands of Mathias Coppens’s noisy score.
Recorded contributions by poet Casey Bailey reveal his penchant for rather too obvious rhythms, alliteration and a general sententiousness – “put down our fears and pick up our dreams; we are more than survivors” indicates the tome. The doughty BRB dancers in street outfits heavy on the denim do what they can with Altunaga’s limited vocabulary of movement and the confused episodic structure of the work as a whole, but they are clearly uncomfortable in a contemporary dance language which is not that in which they have trained their bodies from a young age. Cuban-born Miguel Altunaga is himself an impressive artist who appeared to deserved acclaim with Rambert from 2007 onwards, but his medium is and always has been contemporary dance; as a choreographer he works resolutely within it. The setting is in essence several blocks of what looks like concrete which are in fact wooden constructions on castors into which sawn-off scaffolding poles are inserted after being brandished with depressing regularity and to inexplicable purpose by the dancers. The blocks spend far too much time being shunted around by the cast in what could be interpreted as a replacement for actual choreography.
Brazilian Daniela Cardim was herself a dancer with Dutch National Ballet for some eleven years, so one could expect she understands the classical dance idiom – in Imminent she confidently places her female dancers on pointe in what is identifiably a ‘ballet’. A jagged back panel looking like a huge piece of crumpled blotting paper forms the set and the dancers are costumed in pale grey and beige iterations of the singlet and short skirt (women) or trunks (men) look. Half way through the work, a back door opens which evidently causes disquiet, fear and then curiosity among the sixteen dancers until they pluck up the courage to pass through it. And that’s about it. The somewhat exaggerated and protracted reactions to the open portal evoke the heavy emoting in some ballets of the 1930s and 40s, giving the whole enterprise a somewhat dated feel. Would that Cardim were able to create neo-classical movement of interest, beauty or even quirkiness; with a real taste for multiple turns, she sets her slightly unengaged dancers off into gloopy neo-classical movement which is almost devoid of meaning or purpose. It is fluent but little more and thereby fails to engage despite the untiring efforts of the hapless cast. The stage often feels cluttered with sixteen artists in the hands of a choreographer who does not structure and highlight so that the audience’s eye is led from one tableau to another. Imminent’s only saving grace is its score commissioned from Paul English by, enthusiastically played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia; it has form and, even if a little over-fond of crashing climaxes, makes a striking contribution. The composer has a successful career in film, television and theatre and makes a notable debut in the world of dance; let us hope this is not his last foray into ballet.
Completing the trio of Latin American dance makers, Goyo Montero, principal choreographer of Acosta Danza, who reheats his 2017 Chacona for Uruguay’s National Ballet Sodre with the addition of a pas de deux for Acosta and veteran ballerina Alessandra Ferri. The musical choice of Bach is a good one, and the three instrumental soloists (the piano’s hideous amplification notwithstanding) hold the work together with performances of miraculous music. The sixteen dancers are set into often frenzied motion by Montero with all the tiresome gestures, grimaces and pratfalls of the school of Kylián and Nuato. BRB’s dancers are visibly uncomfortable in the idiom, the floor focus at odds with their airborne training, and the positions of arms and hands were clearly open to personal interpretation. But again, they are untiring and execute the repetitious choreography with grim determination.
And then there were Ferri and Acosta, both undisputed world ballet stars. Their appearance in this programme reminds one of the old days when star dancers were the principal draw, as in “Miss Markova and Mr Dolin will appear at every performance”. In her mid-50s, Ferri possesses a body the envy of almost any woman of any age, but what she is actually given to do is unchallenging; Acosta partners her with his customary care and security and unleashes the odd moment of movement which reminds of his glory days as a virtuoso of the highest order. In a way, it really didn’t matter what they were asked to do, just that they were doing it, and the audience reacted accordingly. Their curtain calls were those of artists accustomed to the acclaim of audiences wherever they go, but whatever the weight they undoubtedly carry as performers, the inconsequentiality of the evening as a whole could not be disguised or forgotten. ‘Curated by Carlos’ was Acosta’s choice and his alone. As evidence of where he wishes his new company to go (he also wants them to be classical ballet dancers of the highest order), it gives rise to much concern; not only because the works he has chosen are simply not up to the company’s historic standards of choreography, but that, as a director, he has forgotten that one of his roles is seen by many as curator of his ensemble’s distinguished past.