Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Serenade'

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest mixed programme, Moving Stateside, features three works by American choreographers. The fact that two of these are female isn’t something BRB have chosen to make a song and dance about — contrast English National Ballet’s preening puffs for its forthcoming 2016 She Said programme. As it turned out, the best piece at Thursday’s Hippodrome matinee was by a man: Serenade by George Balanchine.

Made in 1935 for his fledgling American Ballet, Serenade contrived both to stretch and flatter his young dancers. From the opening statement — a sudden unison click of the feet into first position — the simple-seeming steps are the incarnation of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings (itself a transfiguration of the C major scale). The curtain rises on a balletic Elysium of French-pleated, diamond-earringed girls in chiffon and the serenity of the stage picture means that the slightest incident — a late arrival, a sudden fall to earth — acquires huge dramatic weight, giving the whole ballet a mysterious elegiac aura. BRB, coached by Patricia Neary of the Balanchine police, gave a faithful performance.

The company’s unstarry make-up is probably best suited to ensemble works although 2012’s Lyric Pieces by former Twyla Tharp dancer Jessica Lang was possibly not the best use of their strengths. Lang’s pleasant but generic-looking steps are set to 10 Grieg piano pieces (played by Jonathan Higgins) and dressed in hip-hotel shades of greige. The work’s USP is a set of black, concertina-pleated structures by Molo Design which were pulled into distracting (if photogenic) shapes by the dancers.

The afternoon ended with Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room danced to a pile-driving Philip Glass score (taped), dressed in Norma Kamali’s humbug stripes and sassy red satin, and lent drama and magic by lighting legend Jennifer Tipton.

Tharp’s trademark chef’s salad of sporting, jazz and classical moves was served up with relentless cheerleader charm but the 1986 blockbuster has been showing its age for a while now. Luxury casting (such as the Bolshoi’s 2007 London visit) will still give it a spurious glamour but Thursday afternoon’s often ragged and underpowered BRB ensemble seemed to feel the burn long before their 40-minute workout was up.

At Theatre Royal, Plymouth March 24-25, brb.org.uk

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