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On Tuesday night Birmingham Royal Ballet began its too-brief (only until Saturday) season under the ancestral roof-tree in Rosebery Avenue. I reported earlier in the year on this opening Stravinsky triple bill, and little has changed since then.
The Firebird is well done, with Chi Cao’s Ivan Tsarevich a persuasive portrait, and the massed ranks of Kastchey’s monsters (some of whose outfits seem to have inspired present-day youth fashion) a grand, grotesque parade. The score, with the Birmingham Sinfonia under Barry Wordsworth, cast its customary magic, although the lighting in the opening scene did not.
Apollo also gained its ritualistic power from Chi Cao’s serious, properly iconic portrait of the young god. His Muses I found too domestic: this is, after all, an evocation of classical antiquity, Stravinsky- fashion, and the moment when classic dance acquired its identity for the 20th century, Balanchine- fashion.
At the programme’s heart is Kim Brandstrup’s Pulcinella. About its first performances in Birmingham I reported that the staging and the lighting were so gloomy that I could not see the choreography or the cast’s interpretations.
Matters are only partially improved. Inside this production there is a lively ballet, obscured by a frightful set (Steve Scott) of looming grey panels topped by a vast grille, by the decision to set the action at night and to give some of the characters black masks, by lighting that is still too murkily clever for its own or the audience’s good, and by Brandstrup’s decision to use the entire score. There is much too much music for the gnat’s skeleton of a plot which is, in any case, incomprehensible. Who cares what happens to Pulcinella and his commedia dell’arte chums?
Bandstrup is a skilled dance-maker, and we need to see vivid activity by dancers in Kandis Cook’s ravishing, Callot-esque costumes (swirling cloaks, feathered hats, glowing and subtle colours) that does not go on too long. It is a score and a theme that have defeated other choreographers.
Away with the set. Away with darkness. Away with those tiresome masks. Away with about a third of the score. Then Brandstrup’s Pulcinella can be enjoyed for the clever ballet that it is. For Robert Parker and Ambra Vallo, the leading dancers, and for Kandis Cook, much admiration.
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