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Birmingham Royal - July 9, 10

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[Avant-propos - I wrote this as a long review but broke it into chunks so I don't kill the discussion dead. Apologies for the delay!]

The performances of Birmingham Royal Ballet on Friday and Saturday were the high points of the week, and so far in some ways of the festival. They came here and they looked like a company, and they did it with dancers as diverse in origin as the Joffrey’s. Some of their principals are American, including Molly Smolen and Dominic Antonucci.

The company reprised Enigma on Friday and Dante Sonata on Saturday. Enigma had a few soloists switch about (Rachel Peppin danced Winnifred Norbury instead of Molly Smolen; Chi Cao danced Troyte instead of Robert Parker). By this point, nightly viewings of Ashton were doing what I had hoped for; I felt like I could accept the world that Ashton put us into without expectations brought from Balanchine. For me, the biggest jump was musicality, but I’ve been working on that since 1997. Balanchine’s structuralist approach to music and his archival skills are virtues, not rules. Ashton’s theatrical approach to music can be taken on its own terms. When I watched Enigma I thought most of Elgar’s subtitle: My Friends Pictured Within. It was like looking at leaves from an album rather than a narrative arc. Dante Sonata from the heavens looks as interesting as Dante Sonata from the ground. The ballet is spaced on dramatic spatial patterns, especially diagonals.

The Two Pigeons was delightful. It shares a humanity with La Fille Mal Gardée, the skilful and deft knowledge about our characters that makes old truths seem evergreen. The ballet tells the story of a painter in nineteenth century Paris who is dazzled by a Gypsy Girl from a passing troupe. Despite the pleas of his lover, he leaves their garret to visit the gypsy camp. He meets the Gypsy Girl and briefly displaces her lover to dance with her; this inevitably ends up with him being tied, beaten and thrown out of camp by the men. She spits on him and steps over him as she leaves. Chastened, he returns home to his beloved.

Ashton’s showman instincts (Trained Pigeons! Gypsies!) make the same sense to me as Balanchine’s. Stars and Stripes has girls in bobby sox and pointe shoes blaring trumpets and twirling batons. It’s also a brilliant series of classical divertissements ending in a grand pas de deux and finale. Ashton understands comprehension without condescension as well. Let people come to the theater and have fun. Just give them better fun than they ever would have asked for. There’s a further virtue in the almost Austenian compassion, depth and justice of Ashton’s characterizations. As contrived as the situations seem, as pat as the denouements, the characters grow before us. The pat conclusion becomes the just one.

Mr. A. and Mr. B. are brothers in their understanding of the classical set piece; the dance that exists both for its own sake, but also to distill the narrative and further its themes. Ashton has beautiful dances in both Act I for the Young Girl’s friends and also the Gypsies and an extended divertissement for the Gypsies in Act II. It’s possible to complain about the Act II divertissement if you approach it desiring a semblance of ethnic authenticity; Ashton mixes and matches various Eastern European character dances. It makes perfect sense if you approach it as a classical divertissement; it’s beautifully constructed with waves of gypsy men and women in rich saturated hues progressing forwards and peeling off. Birmingham’s corps danced it both securely and with style.

Birmingham gave us two casts and populated them cannily. It didn’t seem like a first or second cast, if in one cast a role was weaker, in the other it wasn’t. Robert Parker is obviously their star; his Young Man was exuberantly danced, affectionate and affectionately green. When thrown from the Gypsy camp he did a sad solo with ropes still tied to his hands. He looked for all the world like the Prodigal Son. Chi Cao danced as well, but was less of an actor. Parker was paired with Nao Sakuma, Cao with Ambra Vallo, and the situation was reversed. Sakuma is a strong technician and had charm, but I’d prefer to see her long straight lines in a role that doesn’t seem to call for soft curves. As the Gypsy Girl, Asta Bazeviciúte used her presence and size (she towered over Cao) to create her character. Smolen used her back; her yearning suppleness during the Act II divertissement was just lovely. Bazeviciúte made a feature of flicking her legs to a high extension at similar spots, but her back stayed upright. Give to Mr. B what is Mr. B’s, and give to Mr. A. what is Mr. A’s.

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