Birmingham Royal Ballet
Birmingham Hippodrome
Birmingham, UK
February 7–10, 2007
, and touring

by John Percival
copyright ©2007, John Percival

I am ashamed to say I did not realise that Cyrano de Bergerac was a real person until I read Cormac Rigby's fascinating programme note for David Bintley's new ballet about him. He was (forgive me if you already know all this) a seventeenth century cavalier who had a short military career followed by fifteen years devoted to writing, followed by an early death. It was Theophile Gautier, poet and balletomane, who rediscovered him after two centuries, and Edmond Rostand, dramatist, who immortalised him in a famous play. And that amazing nose, cause of all his problems? Was it really so prodigious in size? The idea apparently comes from a quirky remark in Cyrano's novel “L'Autre Monde” that a person's merits can be measured by the length of his nose ...

Anyway, we can measure the fictional Cyrano's merits by his willingness to sacrifice his love for Roxane because he thinks she will be happier with his better-looking young friend Christian, so (as you probably remember) he brings them together by writing letters and poems in illiterate Christian's name. Bintley was attracted enough to make a three-act ballet about him for the Covent Garden Royal Ballet in 1991, starring Stephen Jefferies, Lesley Collier and Bruce Sansom, with a second cast of Irek Mukhamedov, Viviana Durante and Stuart Cassidy. Impressive, eh? But it flopped: muddled story, choreography relying too much on mime.

Luckily that didn't end Bintley's interest; I say luckily because the almost completely new version he has just made for Birmingham Royal Ballet is an immense improvement: a really entertaining show, full of dancing, with vivid characters and telling its story clearly. The first step was to commission a new score. Bintley has repeatedly shown the courage to work with specially written music; his first “Cyrano” was composed by Wilfred Josephs in close collaboration with the choreographer and contained some fine music for pure-dance passages but appears to have been too concerned with narrative incident. This time Bintley turned to Carl Davies, who has worked a lot in ballet but even more in films. The outcome proves in fact rather like a film score, leaving little or no real musical interest but supporting the ballet's action efficiently.

Even more important, Bintley has eliminated various excrescences from his plot: the poetry-obsessed baker Ragenau's wife and her lover have gone, for instance, and a dream version of the dead Christian no longer appears in the last scene. And although there are still many mime gestures, they are much better integrated with the dance. This is most effective in the choreography for Cyrano himself, where many small hand gestures as part of the broader movement allow us to “see” his poems and letters as if we were hearing them. A weakness (inevitable, given the story) is that the women have little to do. There are really only two female characters, Roxane and her duenna, and the latter is a mimed role. Bintley introduces some brief ensembles for women spectators in the initial scene in a theatre, and a big number in the final scene for nuns sweeping up leaves in the convent garden: it makes more sense than their ball games in the 1991 version but still looks contrived.

However, “Cyrano” is by no means unique among Bintley's long ballets in putting the emphasis on male dancing, and this is something he does rather well, with lots of very vigorous ensembles for the Gascon warriors. There is even a dance for Ragenau and his four male cooks, which is highly amusing even for spectators unfamiliar with ballet, but funnier still to those who see it as a parody of Petipa's Rose Adagio with loaves and tarts substituting for flowers. There is much humour in the ballet, a necessary contrast heightening its tragic elements: even as Cyrano dies, sudden moonlight inspires him to repeat for his friends some comic gestures from an earlier occasion when he pretended to be an alien who had fallen from the moon.

Of course there is a lot of swordplay, notably a long duel in the first scene where Cyrano makes mock of his adversary, Valvert, by turning his back to flirt with a couple of girls yet still winning easily. And of course there are plenty of duets too, since this is above all a love story.

This time there are three casts for the big roles. I had to miss one of them when Birmingham was snowed under — that night only two hundred spectators managed to reach the theatre, and were regarded as heroic for doing so. Bintley made the title role on Robert Parker, and sadly it will be the last of Parker's many creations because he is going to stop dancing although only in his early thirties. I believe that physical problems affected his decision, coupled with the chance to start a new career that greatly interests him as an airline pilot. He will be sore missed, but this was a wonderful farewell, bringing out the character's warmth and genial nature. He was assisted by excellent casting in the other roles, including Iain Mackay as a handsome and credible Christian and Elisha Willis making Roxane the best performance I have yet seen from her. The cast I had to miss was led by guest principal Robert Tewsley, Chi Cao and Ambra Vallo, but I caught Iain Mackay's first appearance as Cyrano (with an interesting dark quality), likewise young Jamie Bond as Christian and Nao Sakuma as Roxane — both pleasant enough but I hope they will develop more depth. Others worth noting are Joseph Cipolla, a former BRB star returning as guest to make a sinister but sexy De Guiche (who also desires Roxane), Christopher Larsen as a likeable Ragenau, both Chi Cao and rapidly promoted Kosuke Yamamoto dancing brilliantly as Cyrano's soldier friend Le Bret, besides ballet mistress Marion Tait as the Duenna and both David Morse and Michael O'Hare, two senior staff members, as a comical half-blind Capuchin monk. I must say also that the male ensembles were strongly performed. Altogether, in fact, “Cyrano” shows the company in fine form; and now they go immediately into a Stravinsky-Balanchine triple bill. Watch this space.

Front page, Robert Parker as Cyrano; photo: Steve Hanson.
This page top:, Elisha Willis as Roxane and Iain Mackay as Christian; photo: Bill Cooper.
Second, Elisha Willis as Roxane and Robert Parker as Cyrano; photo: Bill Cooper.
Third, Elisha Willis as Roxane; photo: Bill Cooper.
Fourth, Robert Parker as Cyrano; photo: Roy Smiljanic.

Volume 5, No. 7
February 12, 2007

copyright ©2007 by John Percival

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