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Jack Anderson

Birmingham Royal Ballet in London

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London
October 18-22, 2011
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, November 1, 2011

Iain Mackay as First Red Knight with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet. Photo by RoySmiljanic.

Among the pleasures of a vacation trip to London was the opportunity to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet in a triple-bill which, in this age of multiact blockbusters, triumphantly affirmed the worth of the one-act ballet. Here were three ballets, very different and very good: Ninette de Valois’s "Checkmate" (1937), Frederick Ashton’s "Symphonic Variations" (1946), and John Cranko’s "Pineapple Poll" (1951). Although none is recent, they have all retained their vitality, and each has a distinct personality.

That can be said of surprisingly few one-act ballets nowadays when so many short works are either essays in vague wafting or pretexts for athletic tricks and nothing more. In its London season, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the younger of Britain’s two Royal companies, made one realize some of the kinds of things missing from current repertories.

Of the three works, "Symphonic Variations" comes closest to resembling one sort of ballet now prevalent, for it’s a plotless piece to symphonic music (the César Franck composition after which it is named). But while technically demanding, it is not obviously athletic and it is more than vague wafting. Its unhurried events flow with such apparent ease that it is easy to overlook Ashton’s crafty craftsmanship. There are only six dancers, yet they easily fill a big stage, and they can do so standing still as well in motion: it is remarkable how often at least one dancer remains motionless. Equally remarkable is the way Ashton sometimes has dancers turn their backs to the audience and face upstage. They never flaunt themselves, nor do they ever leave the stage. Rather, they appear to be at home in a magical realm which Ashton has graciously allowed us to enter.

"Checkmate" is altogether different, being a bold Expressionist depiction of a chess game between the powers of Love and Death, with Death as victor. Learning this, anyone who has never seen the ballet may well sigh, "Oh, how old-fashioned this sounds." And, true, few choreographers create such ballets these days. Chess fanatics might also complain that the action does not literally duplicate an actual chess game and, to fit her love/death symbolism, de Valois makes her chess pieces red and black, rather than the more usual white and black. But as the ballet proceeds to a somber score by Arthur Bliss, doubts about it recede, and it grows increasingly compelling, de Valois being a master of choreographic architecture. Drama is inherent in the unfolding patterns, and the chess pieces develop personality traits without turning totally human.

Notable among the figures are a doddering Red King, who becomes fatally trapped in a forest of lances, a gallant Red Knight, and a deadly Black Queen. At one point, the Red Knight is on the verge of slaying her, but she, a true femme fatale, causes him to relent, hastening both his own demise and the ballet’s shattering climax. "Checkmate" remains a fantasy, but because is a product of the troubled 30’s, it makes you wonder if de Valois intended her choreography to be more than an ingenious theatrical game and to take on political or moral implications.

Victoria Marr as the Black Queen. Photo by Roy Smiljanic.

Although "Checkmate" has long been part of the British repertory, it has seldom been shown in America, and I had seen it only once before, in England. The Birmingham production struck me as quite persuasive, with Iain Mackay as a forceful Red Knight and Jonathan Payn as a pitiable Red King. Yet English friends assured me that I had not seen "Checkmate" at its full strength, and I must admit that Victoria Marr could have loomed more imposingly as the Black Queen. Yet she did loom, thereby revealing the role’s essential meanings. De Valois embodied her dramatic ideas in her choreographic structure: perform the steps accurately and with conviction and "Checkmate" will surely make an impression.

Symphonic Variations--Elisha Willis, Natasha Oughtred, Nao Sakuma and Cesar Morales. Photo by Graeme Braidwood.

That can also be said of "Pineapple Poll," Cranko’s comedy to Charles Mackerras’s arrangement of tunes by Gilbert and Sullivan. The ballet, what those Victorian theatrical geniuses might have concocted had they been choreographers, tells the tale of young women in an English port, all with a crush on a handsome sea captain. Therefore, to be near him, they disguise themselves as sailors and sneak aboard his vessel. The plot is simply a pretext (but a good one) for comic dances that bubble along with such merriment that one could easily suppose that the ballet lasts only 20 minutes or so. Instead, it lasts 45; I suspect no one complains. So, too, the way characters constantly come and go gives the impression of an enormous cast. Instead, counting the names on the cast list reveals that it requires only 17 dancers. Cranko has created a big comic ballet that can be danced by a small peppy company. The Birmingham troupe danced it pleasantly, although Carol-Anne Millar sometimes strained too hard to look pert in the title role. But that was a minor blemish. Choreography once again triumphed.

So did décor. Today, when productions can seem either overdressed or threadbare, it was refreshing to see ballets in which scenery complemented choreography. Osbert Lancaster made "Pineapple Poll" appear to take place in a jolly, but never excessively cute, Victorian toy town. The other two ballets had abstract décors. Sophie Fedorovitch’s curving lines prevent her backdrop for "Symphonic Variations" from barrenness. Most striking of all are the designs for "Checkmate" by E. McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954), a London-based American artist whose many posters for such firms as Shell and London Transport led him to be nicknamed "the poster king." A retrospective of his works on view at the Estorick Collection while I was in London showed that his ability to draw upon elements of Cubism and Futurism helped transform commercial graphic design into fine art. His jagged geometrical shapes for "Checkmate" match the ballet’s tensions without distracting from the choreography.

In all three Birmingham productions choreography, décor, and music were harmoniously blended, resulting in an unusually satisfying mixed bill. Would there were more such.

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