This is a programme that reminds dance-goers that the best ballets are not necessarily the newest or the flashiest, nor indeed those with the skimpiest costumes. What counts is the spark of genius, something that Frederick Ashton possessed from his earliest days, as this Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill proves.
Dante Sonata is one of the most accomplished artistic resurrections of recent times, carefully pieced together in 2000 from distant memories, with company director David Bintley artfully filling in the gaps. This important work allows us to understand Ashton’s wartime aesthetic (it is danced for the most part bare-foot), and is here complemented by Sophie Fedorovitch’s simple, striking monochrome designs. The Children of Light do battle with those of Darkness, but this allegory of the struggle against Hitler is never one-sided – war destroys all combatants. Ashton’s groupings are architectural, his movements emphatic, and BRB’s dancers believe utterly, sweeping across the stage to Liszt’s impassioned music. All praise to Philip Ellis and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia for their idiomatic playing of the varied musical fare throughout the evening.
It would be all too easy to dismiss Les Rendezvous as a 1930s amuse-bouche, but it is a sophisticated confection, containing choreography of the highest order. BRB dance this delicate work with dutiful application, missing almost entirely its playful insouciance. Arancha Baselga’s breezy musicality in the fiendish pas de trois made her a notable exception to the somewhat four-square approach overall. The decision to present this most elegant of ballets in Anthony Ward’s garish designs is a serious mistake. What should be chic looks simply vulgar: polka-dot frocks and brash blazers replace the soft lines of William Chappell’s costumes and do not sit well with the movement.
Façade’s period charms can also be difficult to evoke, but the company performed it with both care and pleasure, finding the comedy in Ashton’s 1931 vignettes and parodies of social and folk dance styles. From the absurdities of the milkmaid and mountaineers of the Yodelling Song to the sleek quartet of the Foxtrot, the numbers were pitched perfectly; Kit Holder and Lewis Turner were impossibly deadpan in the Popular Song and Céline Gittens the most vapid of Debutantes in the Tango-Pasadoble.