dream head
Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet as fairies in The Dream. Pictures: Bill Cooper

Ashton Double Bill

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

TWO thousand and sixteen sees the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and Birmingham Royal Ballet are marking the event with no less than seven ballets inspired by the Bard, starting with The Dream.

This is one of two very different ballets in the double bill, with both from the repertoire of Sir Frederick Ashton, seen by many as the creator of the English style of ballet.

The Dream, as the name suggests, is a piece of whimsy based around A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma superb as Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, and Mathias Dingman a delightfully mischievous Puck.

It is Puck who causes all the confusion with his love potion administered to various characters sleeping in the Forest of Arden – the place appears to be littered with people fast asleep. When those treated by Puck wake up they fall in love with the first creature they see.

Puck also adds to the muddle he is creating by giving Bottom, the leader of the rude mechanicals, who are a sort of travelling company of rustic actors, an ass’s head - and no prizes for guessing what the first thing Titania spots when she wakes up. You got it in one.

Jonathan Caguioa provides an amusing Bottom, dancing en pointe as well for those who think it is merely the preserve of ballerinas.

If this was not enough of a mix-up we have the lovers Hermia, danced by Samara Downs and Lysander, danced by Tom Rogers, who turn up in the forest hoping to elope, and they are pursued by Jamie Bond’s Demetrius who has been promised Hermia by her father – are you keeping up at the back? – and who, in turn, is being chased by his former love Helena, danced by Laura Purkiss.

Oberon tells Puck to sort it out and make Demetrius fall for Helena with his magic potion, but he manages to mix up our lover boys and Oberon pitches in with his two pennyworth of fairy dust to make matters worse so that we end up with not only Demetrius but also Lysander desperTitania and Bottomate for Helena’s affections leaving poor old Hermia, who was the most popular girl in the forest when she went to sleep, left out in the cold when she wakes up.

So we end up with balletic fisticuffs in an amusing battle of the sexes in a delightful quartet before Oberon tells Puck to sort it out, son, and so, after yet another sleep, the ass becomes Bottom once again, Hermia and Lysdander are in love once more and Demetrius sees the light, with a little help, and falls again for Helena – with everyone believing they are waking from a dream, including Titania, who has made a bit of an ass of herself..

With everyone living happily ever after again it is also an opportunity for a stunning pas de deux from Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma.

Nao Sakuma as Titania and Jonathan Caguioa as Bottom

The music incidentally was by Felix Mendelssohn who wrote music for the play towards the start and again at the end of his career.

Adding to the performance were the girls’ voices from Birmingham Cathedral Choir.

The second Ashton piece, A Month in the Country,  was a completely different animal, premiered 12 years later than the dream in 1976, and tells a simple tale of common or garden lust.

Handsome, dashing . . . available Beliaev, danced imperiously by Iain Mackay, arrives at a posh Russian country house as tutor to Kolia, the son of the household, danced with boyish charm, by Mathias Dingman.

Kolia has a touch of hero worship for his tutor, especially when he receives a kite as a gift, but little does he know that he is in a long queue of those showing an interest in the new arrival.

There is Vera, danced by Karla Doorbar, his mother’s ward . . . and then his mother, Natalia, danced by Delia Mathews, and even the maid Katia, danced by Yvette Knight, who all have the hots for the new teacher and are in the market for private lessons.

With Vera and Katia the relationship girlish infatuation, more playful and flirtatious than serious with Vera admonished by Natalia when she is found cavorting with the tutor. But that we discover was more about removing a rival in her own pursuit of Beliaev, capturing her prey as soon as the coast is clear.

The subsequent pas de deux between Mathews and Mackay displays real, raw passion. You expect ballet duets to be sensual, after all they are usually portraying a stylised romance, but there is a charged sexual content to the dancing here between a frustrated, unfulfilled housewife and a dashing tutor with nothing to lose but his job.

It can’t last of course and Natalia’s husband Yslaev, danced by Michael O’Hare, has no intention of being a cuckold, so Beliaev is told to pack his bags and leave at once – after a mere 35 minutes in the job. The parting is a touching moment in itself as both reflect on what they have lost. He leaves saddened, but no doubt will be heading for another willing housewife, while she is left with her shame and empty life.

The design and costumes by Julia Trevelyan Oman sets the ballet in the 1840s, the same time as the original Ivan Turgenev five act play from 1855.

They are sumptuous and full of imagination, such as the bridge in the garden at the rear of the stage seen through French windows where we see people entering and leaving – much more interesting then exit stage left (pursued by a bear, of course, if we want to keep the Shakespearean connection).

A mention too for pianist Jonathan Higgins, who handles the extensive and complex solos in the music by Frederick Chopin superbly and of course the always excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by Paul Murphy.

Two very different ballets, with very different styles and both beautifully danced.

The Ashton Double Bill continues until 20 February.

Roger Clarke

17-02-16

There is a special First Steps programme for children at Birmingham Hippodrome on Friday, 19 February, which is an hour long introduction to ballet through The Dream, aimed at children aged three to seven.

A storyteller will explain the story and explain some of the technical tricks used in staging the show as well as introducing excerpts with the full Royal Ballet Sinfonia and BRB dancers. The show starts at 1pm, with tickets £10.

The Shakespeare season continues next week with Romeo and Juliet from Wednesday, 24 February to Saturday, 27 February. 

 

At the doublet

****

TWO short ballets featuring the exciting work of Sir Frederick Ashton, one of England’s most influential choreographers, highlight the diversity of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in this double bill.

The stories are totally different, but each one gives the dancers an opportunity to display their wonderful skills and sublime movement.

In the opening ballet, The Dream, danced to music by Mendelssohn, the company present a fascinating version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with mortals and fairies involved in a spot of mischief when Oberon clashes with his Queen in a dispute over a young page.

Joseph Caley and Nao Sakuma are superb as Oberon and Titania, and there is a particularly interesting performance, full of humour and invention, from Mathias Dingman as Puck who transforms the rustic character, Bottom, into an ass, leading to an unlikely love match.

On the wrong end of Puck’s magic, Jonathan Caguioa, complete with an ass’s head, delivers some lively, gymnastic-style dancing which the audience loved on opening night….as the company launch a year-long commemoration of Shakespeare’s death 400 years ago.

Choristers from the Birmingham Cathedral Choir make an important contribution to the ballet, their voices combining with the cleverly designed set to create an almost eerie atmosphere at times.

The second ballet, A Month in the Country, involves love and jealousy at the plush home of a Russian family, with Delia Matthews a delight as bored but passionate housewife Natalia Petrovna who takes a shine to handsome new tutor, Beliaev (Iain Mackay). He also stirs the emotions of Natalia’s pretty young ward, Vera (Karla Doorbar), leading to friction in the household.

Chopin’s music is played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Murphy, and there is a particularly impressive solo contribution from pianist Jonathan Higgins.

The double bill runs to 20.02.16

Paul Marston 

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