Triple Bill – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, 29 October 2019

Nein, Sinatra Songs

Grey Matters. BRB in Jack Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia

As ballet triple bills go, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest was as diverse as they come. The night opened with a brand new piece, Jack Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia, and closed with Twyla Tharp’s ballroom-lite Nine Sinatra Songs, while the middle work was presented by an entirely different company, namely Ballet Black.

A Brief Nostalgia certainly looked the part. A stark staging of several large grey walls against which the dancers regularly pressed themselves was made beautiful by the constant shifting of shadows within Alexander Berlage’s interchanging lighting. Tom Harrold’s music was also interesting; rumbling climaxes interspersed with calming episodes and plenty of rhythmic progressions meant there was a lot to listen to. At times there were short bursts of compelling choreography to watch but on the whole it was unclear what was trying to be said; the abstract nature of the physical form fought too much against the narrative nature of the music, leaving a curious emotional void at its heart.

Cathy Marston’s The Suit has quickly become something of a winner for Ballet Black. It relays the story of a man who comes home unexpectedly one day to find his wife hard at it with another fella. Understandably cross, he forces his disgraced woman to live with his rival’s discarded suit and tragedy soon follows. Though it sounds odd, the suit makes an excellent visual representation of the un-erasable memory of personal betrayal and Marston generally handles the complexity of the consequences very well. Although it goes on a little too long, the central relationship of Philemon and Matilda is clearly relayed and rarely overstated and José Alves and Cira Robinson give them decent portrayals. The soundtrack of recordings from the Kronos Quartet is wonderfully curated and Jane Heather’s costumes give an excellent sense of place. What lets The Suit down somewhat is Marston’s insistence on filling the stage with superfluous figures that hover around the action, distracting attention away from the emotional core of the story.

Last up was Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Nine songs by Frank Sinatra are given a balletic take on the glamorous dancing of the 1950s musical – think Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, only on this occasion it was about as successful as Fred and Ginger doing Swan Lake would probably be. Of the seven couples only César Morales and Momoko Hirata and (especially) Brandon Lawrence and Eilis Small came anywhere near the smooth glide and soft melt required of the piece. Elsewhere it looked awkward and uncomfortable on the dancers. Mind you, it’s something of an odd ballet and quite why the domineering male bully of the last couple should get by far the biggest cheer at the curtain call is beyond me.

BRB’s Triple Bill continues at Sadler’s Wells until 30 October 2019. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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