A hand to brag about

Three of a kind

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

FIRST they are not. Not three of a kind that is, but are three very different pieces, albeit all from the twentieth century and all delightfully light hearted.

The opening piece is the evolution of a largely unsuccessful collaboration between composer Igor Stravinsky and legendary choreographer George Balanchine from 1937.

Jeu de Cartes or Card Game was originally based on a game of poker, one of Stravinsky’s favourite pastimes but this 1965 version by former Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet choreographer John Cranko not only simplifies the Balanchine narrative of combative  poker into a more abstract dance with the inspired addition of humour.

The piece brings us three deals of five different dancers representing cards with Elisha Willis a coquettish Queen of Hearts among two pairs, tens and sevens. in the opener while the second dance brings us a flush of hearts then finally we get Laura Day as the two of diamonds in a busted royal flush of spades.

Through it all we have Jamie Bond as The Joker who, unlike the original’s malevolent character, infiltrating a serious game, here is just a joker, trying with varying success to work his way into each deal, accepted and discarded as the whim takes the other cards. 

Jamie Bond as the eternal extra in any Card Game, The Joker

There are some lovely touches, such as the fan of cards at the end of the second deal and clever use of huge cards to bring dancers on and off stage.

It is not the easiest of music to dance to but provides an easy on the eye opener.

The second hand is another Balanchine piece, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, this time with music by Richard Rodgers and its roots are strictly Broadway rather than ballet.

The piece comes from Rodgers and Hart’s Broadway hit musical comedy On Your Toes from 1936 which was originally conceived as a film starring Fred Astaire. Astaire turned it down as not fitting his white tie and tails sophisticated image of that time.

So it was changed to a stage production and became the first Broadway musical to incorporate classical dance and jazz.

Slaughter is a short ballet, a climactic scene within the romantic comedy musical and the story is simple, a hit man has been hired to kill the star of the ballet which is set in a speakeasy.

The killing, from a box, is timed for when the star ends the show by pretending to shoot himself but the dancer hears of the plot and dances on, and on and . . . on until the police grab the shooter.

Tyrone Singleton is the hoofer with a price on his head while Céline Gittens is sex on long legs as the striptease girl and their dance together makes sensual look like a tea dance in a retirement home.

The role of hoofer demands the added skill of tap – remember the part was originally for Astaire – and Singleton does not disappoint.

As a piece of modern dance this is flashy and pure fun from beginning to end, the magic of Broadway served up as ballet.

The final piece is Elite Syncopations. That was the name of a 1902 rag from the King of Ragtime Scott Joplin and in 1974 Royal Ballet director Kenneth MacMillan created a ballet of the same name based on tunes, including the title one, by both Joplin and other similar composers from the era.

The result is a cheerful, colourful series of fun dances on a largely bare stage with walls and flies exposed and with company pianist Jonathan Higgins and his Ragtime Band, members of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia of course, at the back of the stage, all giving a turn of the 19th century feel.

Perhaps the advice of don't try this at home might be in order as Céline Gittens gets pulses racing as the striptease girl in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

We saw Jenna Roberts, all stars and stripes in Stoptime Rag and Angela Paul produces a clever dance to James Scott’s Calliope Rag while Arancha Baselga and Feargus Campbell found plenty of fun in Max Morath’s The Golden Hours.

Comedy honours though had to go to Yvette Knight and James Barton in Joseph Francis Lamb’s  Alaskan Rag. The pair produced a dance of pure slapstick exploiting a taller Knight to a diminutive Barton and some of the most complex entanglements in a pas de deux you are every likely to see. One wrong move and a chiropractor could make a career out of untangling them.

Joseph Caley, who seems blessed or cursed depending upon your point of view, to look like the perpetual sixth former, impressed by showing an ability to walk on his hands in Hothouse Rag and then produced a confident solo in Donald Ashwander’s Friday Night. Caley seems to improve and grow in stature each time he dances.

It was not all fun and gaes though; we had a sentimental dance as well from Jenna Roberts, again, and Yasuo Atsuji, who seemed to have bagged the biggest hat from wardrobe, in Joplin’s Bethena Concert Waltz.

Three very different pieces united by the kind of high standards of dance we have come to expect from Birmingham Royal Ballet.

It might not be ballet as people imagine it but trust me, it is amusing, easy on the eye and deals a winning hand of dance. To 22-02-14

Roger Clarke

And from another deck . . .

*****

THREE cheers for the BRB after this spectacular production of Three of a Kind sees the company move away from the usual classic ballet and deliver a trio of stunning dances stories with a difference.

Each one contains something special, opening with Card Game in which the dancers in skin-tight ‘onesie’ costumes emblazoned with hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades can represent s full house or a royal flush.

A King, Queen and Joker also appear and there is a delightful conclusion with a group fanning out like a skilled card sharp considering his hand. It  is played out to Stravinsky’s music and John Cranko’s clever choreography.

But perhaps the most exciting, sexy offering is Slaughter on Tenth Avenue which opens in front of a closed curtain with a 1930s gunman being hired to shoot a night club dancer at the end of his number, forcing him to dance till he drops after learning of the plot.

Tyrone Singleton excels as the Hoofer with Celine Gittens giving a sublime performance as the Striptease Girl – a clinging fishnet body stocking and a body to die for! Choreography is by George Balanchine.

The third and final piece is the extraordinary Elite Syncopations, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan, in which a dozen members of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia appear on stage playing their instruments, wearing colourful costumes, and beautifully conducted by Jonathan Higgins at the piano.

The dancers, too, wear spectacular costumes for a range of dances many of which included great humour and emotion. Not to be missed. To 22-02-14. 

Paul Marston 

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