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'Fire & Fury', Birmingham Royal Ballet - Sadler's Wells Theatre

Tuesday October 30th and Wednesday October 31st 2018

Tickets: £12 - £45


This week, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s take on London begins by Fire & Fury. The mixed-bill, whose title does recall a quote from recent US presidential declarations, is announced as “fuelled by power and politics”. Yet the performance offers contemplative and abstract work using historical representations of power, rather than one actively engaging with politics.

The evening begins with The King Dances, freely inspired by the 1653 Le Ballet de la nuit and showcasing the very origin of ballet and its (ancient and French) roots. It is a tribute to Louis XIX who appeared at age 14 in the ballet as Apollo, thus earning his well-known nickname “the Sun King”. As a strong supporter of the arts and a gifted dancer himself, he pushed amateur traditional Court dances to become a coded artistic discipline in its own right. To say that ballet owes him a lot would be an understatement.

The tercentennial art form’s history has been a quite popular approach of late: Alexei Ratmansky faithfully recreated Swan Lake to the (strikingly different) standards of its 1877 premiere, contemporary dance choreographer Béatrice Massin’s work is highly infused by 17th century Baroque dance, the early 20th century Ballet Russes have been widely programmed to preserve their revolutionary legacy.

In this regard The King Dances succeeds to display the style in which ballet originated before the point shoe was created, revolutionizing the art and shifting focus to the ballerina. Instead, men appear nearly exclusively on stage. Their group movements demonstrate how the efficiency of the corps de ballet, at its peak in the 19th century, is an old trick originating over three centuries ago. Overall the work serves as a useful dance lesson. But by keeping the work quite literal to its 1653 tale of the night, it does not make use of the rich wider political context of the time: aristocratic rebellion leading to a new form of absolutism and cult of personality.

While the first piece is obviously linked to the fire theme by showing the Sun King (also incidentally bringing blazing torches on stage), the second work is just as much by its title Ignite (and the clever metaphoric rendering of flames) in which rising choreographer Juanjo Arqués takes us on a choreographic depiction of William Turner’s 1835 painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons.

The piece describes the picture through movement: the lead roles namely Sky, River and Fire, each represent a distinct element of the painting. The perfectly casted soloists display the talent held in the company. Lead Fire couple Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence deliver a menacing performance executing their spiky pas de deux with strength and brilliant virtuosity. Mathias Dingman as Sky flows through the stage with great musicality and pirouettes enough to make you dizzy on your seat. His pairing with Delia Matthews’ athletic River also is a success. The corps de ballet appears in great shape, delightfully reproducing a hypnotic fire and gaining intensity throughout the piece with an accurate sense of emergency.

Arqués appears to have particularly grasped the spirit of Turner’s painting in a striking scene where River stands front-stage, turning her back to the audience and watching the fire unfold until all is left to greyness and ashes. Despite the overall abstractness of the choreography, the piece is supported by point-on set and costume design, which purposefully strengthening the visual affiliation to Turner’s painting and allows to recall the narrative of the 19th century historical event.

To catch-up with Birmingham Royal Ballet, rest assured! They will be back in London late December for the traditional holiday guilty pleasure and Christmas classic The Nutcracker at Royal Albert Hall.

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