writers on dancing


Madam and her Boys

“Checkmate”, “Lady and the Fool”, “Solitaire”
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells Theatre
October 25 & 26, 2005
by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival
Birmingham Royal Ballet began with the transfer to England’s second city of the former Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, which in turn began as an offshoot of Ninette de Valois’s original Sadler’s Wells Ballet.  So what better way to start the season which contains the 75th anniversary of ballet at Sadler’s Wells than this commemorative triple bill assembling creations (too long neglected) by Dame Ninette, who started it all, and two of her chief discoveries, John Cranko and Kenneth MacMillan?  All three works, each with a plot or at least a theme conveyed entirely in dance terms, can appeal equally to first-time viewers or long term ballet-goers. This bill is being given in tandem with BRB director David Bintley’s own three-act comedy “Hobson’s Choice”, which he dedicated to Dame Ninette as “an English ballet”, honouring her wish for a distinctively national  repertoire. So only Frederick Ashton among the Royal Ballet’s principal creators is omitted, and we already celebrated his centenary last season.   

“Madam”, as her dancers called her, is too often forgotten as a choreographer nowadays, but at the beginning she had to provide nearly the whole repertoire—inventing as many as seven ballets in a year.  Only a few of them survive, but BRB has successfully given four of those and chose to do “Checkmate” this time.  It was created in 1937 (the same wonderful year as Ashton’s “Les Patineurs” and “A Wedding Bouquet”) and premiered for the Paris International Exhibition at the Champs-Elysées Theatre.  Arthur Bliss, composer, wrote the plot as well as the score: a chess match between Love and Death in which the voluptuous and unscrupulous Black Queen seduces the brave Red Knight so that although he overcomes her in a duel he cannot bring himself to kill her, and she thereupon ritually slays the feeble Red King.  

De Valois had outstanding dancers to create those roles—the beautiful June Brae as the wicked Black Queen; Harold Turner, handsome, manly and virtuosic as the Red Knight; and the great actor Robert Helpmann for the King. The present performances are dedicated to the recently deceased Pamela May, who was the devoted Red Queen at the premiere and later played the Black Queen too.   

The ballet is truly well-made, its drama inspiring the dances, from the competitive early quartet of four knights through to its gradually growing climaxes. Note that, as in all her surviving ballets, de Valois put great emphasis on the male dancers, above all in her demands on the Red Knight’s virtuosity and stage presence. Three young men successively danced that role this week, James Grundy, Chi Cao and Robert Parker—all pretty well.

Memorable designs by the famed poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer contributed to the success of “Checkmate” (even though the knights surely never liked the horse-heads that must make their turns more difficult). Unfortunately both the other ballets on this bill had been given new designs which I found detrimental.  The original setting of John Cranko’s “The Lady and the Fool” wasn’t great, and the new one by Kate Ford is better, not least in providing effective entrances and exits on two levels at the rear.  But some of Ford’s costumes are misconceived and altogether too fussy, detracting from the effectiveness of the leading men.   

Cranko was de Valois’s first great discovery after World War Two, and soon showed a special gift for story-ballets, for which he almost always invented his own plots. In this one, the titular Lady is a renowned beauty, La Capricciosa, courted by three suitors, respectively rich, brave and noble, but she rejects them all for love of a kind-hearted clown, Moondog (a role created on Kenneth MacMillan in his dancing days).  Set-pieces include two inventively comic numbers for him and his less glamorous little partner Bootface, and a grand adagio for Capricciosa with her suitors in which they each remove a mask she insists on wearing but find her still hidden beneath another. There are, besides, a notably touching duet for the lovers, plus really lively ensembles for the party guests. A great help to the choreographer was the delicious score which Charles Mackerras arranged of less familiar selections from Verdi’s operas: wonderful tunes, grand, emotional, dramatic and witty.   

This is a ballet which, while providing an exceptional role for its leading woman, offers fine opportunities also for a host of male dancers, in contrasted moods. La Capricciosa’s role is richly developed: commanding at times but at others uncertain, sometimes amused by her situation, and brought out by the different characters who court her. Particularly lovely in it was Ambra Vallo, with James Grundy a notably lively Moondog, and Chi Cao and Rory Mackay in fine form as the most prominent suitors, Capitano Adoncino and Signor Midas.  But I shall not complain about other casts including Nao Sakuma as Capricciosa and Robert Parker as Moondog.

Tom Rogers, a tall handsome young man who joined BRB only last year, made a fine Prince of Arroganza (the other suitor), and Alexander Campbell, new this very year, not only danced well as Bootface but revealed charm and a good sense of character too.

The other work given was drawn from Kenneth MacMillan’s early ballet-making days.  This too had new designs; he often changed his ballets’ decors, by no means always for the better, and Lady MacMillan, widow and heir, continues the process.  But why on earth did she commission new circus-style costumes by Kim Beresford for her late husband’s “Solitaire”, and have a muzzy backdrop in similar colours making them hard to see?    

Apart from that, however, “Solitaire” (a kind of game for one, MacMillan called it) is one of his best ballets. His early works at Sadler’s Wells gained a lot from their original casts, good and very responsive dancers.  In “Solitaire” he had Margaret Hill, a dear friend and an unusually sensitive dancer, to create the central Girl—a character in the outsider mood he always favoured, only more lyrical here: lonely but remembering those who temporarily befriended her. There is much humour too, attractively contrasted solos for two resilient men and a perkily cheerful second woman who has a brisk polka, and delicately implied relationships but none of the heavy-fisted acting of his later block-busters. Credit to Malcolm Arnold, who allowed MacMillan to use his two sets of English Dances and helpfully added a sarabande and the polka: there’s no doubt that this score substantially inflected the ballet’s mood.  Some comparative newcomers who joined BRB only in 2003 were well featured in the leads, Viktoria Walton and Jenna Roberts as the Girl, Tyrone Singleton as the partner, with the more established Lei Zhao excellent as the polka girl.   

Shown in two evenings and a matinee at the Wells with multiple casts, the programme gave more than half of the company’s dancers solo roles. That’s good because, having lost several principals last season through retirement, indisposition or transfer, BRB needs to develop the new generation of soloists. They are going about it well: I find that the company looks both able and lively, and works well together. And isn’t it great that David Bintley, who on becoming director announced his aim to make this the most creative of British companies, is also doing so much to preserve the heritage and to continue the policies of their illustrious founder?

Volume 3, No. 40
October 31, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on October 31, 2005