A night of uneasy beauty

Artifact

Royal Ballet Flanders

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

THIS is ballet stripped to its elements, its basic components; shapes, form and movement, shades of light and dark.

There is no narrative, no lifting symphonic swell of an orchestra, nor any emotion or engagement. You feel nothing for the dancers. You are not involved you just observe.

It is all narrated – or perhaps not - on stage by a Character in Historical Costume (Kate Strong) who looks like the Queen of some nation long gone, and Character with a Megaphone  (Nicholas Champion) who looks a bit like a maths teacher hating every minute of announcing at a school sports day.

They wander around speaking nonsense with megaphone man tapping his microphone on the floor around the stage as if testing for dry rot at one stage.

There is no drama or emotion in the voices which are flat and, in the case of Champion, distorted by the megaphone, but they are somehow disconcerting.

It is a little like watching random scenes from Brave New World or 1984 made into a ballet, something you almost recognise, something almost familiar but not quite, leaving you feeling slightly uneasy, out of your comfort zone.

What it was all about I have no idea. The programme notes give some explanation, but we seemed to be being warned about stepping inside ourselves and questioning our our world, our reason and finally, at the end, stepping back outside and questioning what was left, what we are.

All very complicated but mesmerising to watch; there is no scenery just the vast black Hippodrome stage with columns of lights and speakers and a wall of 16 spots like searchlights shining unimpeded up to the height of the flies.

For the first time, perhaps, many people could see why the appeal for refurbishing the stage is £1 million. It is vast.

And on such a huge stage even the mass of dancers from Ballet Royal look small, which perhaps adds to the effect.

The piece is in four parts with the opening in gloom highlighted by spots contrasting with blackness as the Character in Historical Costume worries people are going to go inside.

This is to music by Eva Crossman-Hecht played beautifully by Margo Kazimirska on the piano in a piece which throws in The Way You Looked Tonight from time to time

Geometric shapes in random panels as a background to The Other Person, the third named character in Artifact

The second part is set to Bach's Chaconne in D Minor played by Russian born American violinist Nathan Milstein. Here ballet is deconstructed as we find two couples dancing without emotion in beautifully choreographed but strangely cold pieces with the action interrupted by the curtain crashing down time after time and rising to find the 30 strong corps in new formations.

This is all the elements of ballet, shape, form, movement and wonderful dancing but with none of the traditional romantic or lyrical story that gives the dances shape. It is dance that is somehow not satisfying, and perhaps that is the point, but it is fascinating and beautifully done by soloists Aki Saito, Wim Vanlessen, Laura Hidlago and Yevgenly Kolesnyk.

Legendary choreographer William Forsythe, who also designed the stage and extraordinary lighting created the sound mix for part three as panels with crude cogs and shapes appear before we return to the music of part 1 again as the panels form a wall which is demolished piece by piece by the Character in Historical Costume as the dancers all step outside and we are left to question what it was all about.

It is something which, sadly, could also be asked of The Royal Ballet of Flanders, which is under threat from Belgian politics.

The ballet's Australian born artistic director Kathryn Bennetts, who worked with Forsythe as Ballet Mistress in Frankfurt for 15 years, is leaving in summer after the Belgian culture minister decided to merge the ballet with the Flemish Opera and orchestra– effectively sidelining Bennetts and taking away her control of programming.

There is a job application form for a new artistic director on the ballet's website (http://www.balletvlaanderen.be/?lang=en) where the premiere of David Dawson's Giselle in June has been cancelled because of “recent occurrences”.

Most of the dancers have declared they will leave with her so the fear is that the ballet will struggle to survive, especially in its present form. Its loss to Antwerp, and to Belgium, would be on a similar scale to the loss of Birmingham Royal Ballet to the Midlands and Britain.

Artifact, first performed by Ballett Frankfurt in 1984, and appearing as part of International Dance Festival Birmingham closes 26-04-12.

Roger Clarke

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