A beast that really is a beauty

Beauty and the Beast

Ballet Cymru

Palace Theatre, Mansfield

****

WELSH Ballet (Ballet Cymru) is one of those prodigiously gifted young companies you stumble across once in a decade. I have seen them perform Shakespeare (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet) electrifyingly. A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest stunningly. Closer to home, their Under Milk Wood was as joyous as it was moving.

Choreographer Darius James has staged other classic adaptations (like Lady of the Lake, Little Red Riding Hood) with real insight, wonderful casts of beautiful, heart-rending young executants; and with none of the kitsch feel that could sometimes bedevil, say, the late Christopher Gable’s Northern Ballet Theatre. On form, Welsh Ballet is not just glittering; it’s pure gold.

The Newport-based ensemble started out in 1986 as Independent Ballet Wales, with the wonderful Yvonne Williams as general manager and universal factotum, who made sure the comely lead youngsters (usually eight in the squad) washed behind the ears, conjured up glorious costumes from charity shop bits of cloth and with the odd knitting needle, and was always there to welcome you front of house. beauty and the beast

Yvonne died just before Christmas, a huge loss. Though not before seeing one of their most brilliant creations, a double bill led off by Cold Rolling, an evocation (combining ‘a stark industrial soundtrack, looped grainy video recordings and minimalist choreography to evoke the mundane, dehumanising nature of the work’) of the mechanical process for producing sheet steel, so crucial a part of South Wales’s once flourishing industrial economy.

Rehearsing the beast prior to the tour

Like the works in Ebbw Vale and Port Talbot, This company has fire in its belly. You can see from every aspect of its work that the company will live up to her, and keep her infectious spirit alive.

In her last years it redoubled its award-winning status, taking a Critics Circle National Dance Audience Award, then four years ago it at last gained much-needed revenue status from the Arts Council of Wales, and soon after a £139k grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Two of its productions were nominated for Best Dance Production by the Welsh Critics in 2013, and the same year it was nominated Best Independent Dance Company nation all by the Critics Circle.  

Darius James is the company’s co-founder and principal choreographer. A natural teacher and inspirer, and till a few years ago a riveting dancer, driven out by injury (ENB’s Thomas Edur, seen by the Financial Times as ‘the finest classical dancer in the country’, and who guested for Birmingham Royal Ballet, in a similar situation ended up running Estonia’s National Ballet), James coaxes, nurses, fashions his young charges – some are very young, 18-22 - into dancers of real maturity. There is an all-round beauty of attitude which translates visibly into a beauty in performance.

And now they have launched Beauty and the Beast, at the Palace Theatre, Mansfield, with a new tour lasting till from May to July. Y Brydferth a’r Bwystfil, to give the famous fable its Welsh title, lives up to IB’s previous efforts well. James and his fellow-director Amy Doughty choreograph with their usual affection for the story and for the performers, using each dancer’s differing skills to best advantage. As a finely shaped, immensely polished stagework Beauty is haunting, appealing, poignant, and ultimately buoyant and life-enhancing. Those are things Welsh Ballet, with its blossoming youth and flair, does better than anyone.

Everything conspires. David Westcott’s music is elegant, attractive, desirable. These dancers don’t need simplistic rhythms to shape their bodies to, but they need muGet to the point - Lydia Arnoux, who dances Beauty in Ballet Cymru's latest stagingsic that is enabling. They get it. The score is minimalist in places, but never tediously repetitive, always endlessly creative and imaginative. Part way in, there’s a lovely recorded sequence for two cellos - or is it one cellist exquisitely double-tracked? When the Beast takes the stage, the aura shifts to the kind of instrumental clusters you might find in a great modern composer such as Lutoslawski. That kind of detail works wonders.

Points  apart: Lydia Arnoux, who dances Beauty, in training

 

You are quickly captivated by the characterisation: Daniel Morrison as Beauty’s hopeful (but unsuccessful) young lover; Andrea Batteggia as her brother; Robbie Moorcroft as his chum. Each brings his own sparky personality to bear, so a kind of village of characters emerges, almost as in Under Milk Wood. Small duets evolve: two of the boys, then Beauty and one of them. And then the caring father (Nicolas Capelle), almost as fondly possessive as if he’s just carved a Pinocchio. His slow pirouette with his daughter is absolutely gorgeous (although a few scenes later his invention and delivery did marginally weaken).

Despite the group’s intensive traditional training, James and Doughty’s Ballet Cymru is not even mainly about classical ballet. Balletic gyres are interspersed with almost normal, naturalistic moves. It’s not as if you don’t get sequences on point, but they come and go. You certainly get more formal dance than in Matthew Bourne’s latest, but not as much as in, say, David Bintley’s BRB. And it’s good to look at: Steve Denton’s costumes, early on a flurry of yellows and reds, delight (the pushy sisters, a bit like Cinderella’s – Krystal Lowe, Natalie Debono, Annette Antal - look good, fit well, and enhance the show). 

Denton’s set focuses on highly atmospheric back-projections and video usage, so that quickly the scene turns crepuscular, thorns emerge (on set and in some snaky costumes) and we are in the world of a sad, eerie palace. Side panels and pale statues complete the slightly icy feel. Even without the dance, the poignancy of the beast’s metamorphosed condition is evident. Denton gives us loneliness, oppression, even deep distress. The sisters are now weird maidens, part threat, part objects of wonder. We have entered another planet.

Chris Illingworth’s lighting – interlocking paths of yellow and beige, orange and greeny-turqoise, not at all overegged or overdeployed - adds a lot. It counts for something when Mandev Sokhi’s Beast, in a subtle skeletal costume, makes his entrance. Beauty gets entranced by him pretty quickly; perhaps a bit more might have been made of the initial fear, horror,A scene from Little Red Riding Hood revulsion. But what is perhaps nicer is that she is so unfazed. She stands up to him. She is not overruled. It fits with the character Lydia Arnoux conjures. She is no shrinking violet.

The ensuing ensemble sections are well dovetailed to the music, though I felt just near the end of the first half it momentarily became a little muddy in look – something that could yet be sharpened. The final sequence, the music (and indeed the look) of the dance almost Tchaikovskian, my notes tell me, was pure delight.

A scene from Ballet Cymru's recent production of Little Red Riding Hood

When Sokhi’s Beast crawls, he acquires an elegance that his standing self – rather awkward on perhaps too high-raised stilts, rearing like a horse; an echo, perhaps, of the Wolf in BC/BW’s Little Red Riding Hood - lacks. In a way it’s difficult for him to dance, just as swirling Hispanic skirts slightly restrict those sisters at the start from revealing their true agility. Snaky he might seem, like Adam’s serpent after the Fall, but he’s fabulously elegant. Arnoux seems lost in adoration: it’s almost as if she is trying single-handedly to charm him out of his alien skin. Quite some relationship develops.

The next ensemble, roughly a sextet, is much better: focused, clever, finely executed. Westcott’s music takes on ‘rich and strange’ new consistencies. There’s a hint (probably unconscious) of Tubular Bells. And a gentle carillon that falls and rises, massively atmospheric. We progress to an enchanting (as opposed to enchanted) recognition scene for Beauty’s put-upon father rediscovering her. There is a freshness to everything, though at one latish point I felt the music became not quite optimal for the danced scene (rather than the dancers failing to match the music).

Avenant (Morrison), the wannabe boyfriend, has another go, in a rather well-danced sequence, attractively fluid and fluent. But it is not to be. The Beast emerges as the real boy, the monsters shed their attire, spells are undone, normality descends. A folk violin is used rather effectively for the expressive last main solo.

The final ensemble arguably needs geeing up – not so much qualitatively, but with an extra idea to give it specific meaning. A bit more like the curtain calls, which were, as you’d expect from this polished company, tip-top.

For any small drawbacks, Beauty and the Beast is a treat and joy. Inventive ballet at its best, fresh and original and alive. Ballet Cymru’s new tour impends; this appearance at Mansfield was early days for this cast. With a bit of tweaking, it will join the pantheon of Welsh Ballet’s best. 07-05-14.

Roderic Dunnett

Touring to 7 July, including the New Victoria Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme (25 June 7.30, www.newvictoriatheatre.org.uk) and the Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury (12 June, 7.30, www.rosestheatre.org).    www.welshballet.co.uk

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