A Fair Lady indeed: Elisha Willis as Gertrude Lawrence and Jonathan Payn as George Bernard Shaw. Picture: Simon Tomkinson

Going faster: Ambra Vallo with Jamie Bond and William Bracewell - photo Bill Cooper

Summer Celebration

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THREE ballets, one all 1930's art deco elegance, one traditional whimsy and a third modern, fast and furious – and a world premiere to boot  – all in one night ad home before the epilogue - so what more could you ask for?

Picking up the gold medal, even if it came second in the programme, was David Bintley's new ballet Faster, Birmingham Royal Ballet's contribution to London 2012 and the Olympics - and not a flame or torch in sight.

The title comes from the Olympic motto Citius, Altius, Fortius which for those who did not do Latin at school – I was encouraged to do metalwork after just one lesson – means Faster, Higher, Stronger.

Uplifting: Iain Mackay with Elisha Willis in the wolrd premiere of David Bintley's Faster. Picture: Bill Cooper

Bintley's piece, with music by Australian composer Matthew Hindson, the same combination which produced the award winning E=mc2, could on one level be a representation of sports with high jump, gymnastics, fencing, swimming, sprinting, wrestling and walking all easily identified, ending with the entire cast in a marathon.

But on another level it is a representation of human endeavour and achievement which can apply to any field from dance to delivering pizzas.

At times it has a look and feel of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia, documenting the 1936 Summer Olympics, another project turning sport into art where results were not as important as the visual impact of shape and form - athletes as artists rather than competitors

The ballet achieves the same end documenting abstract contests and competition with no winners, or losers, until the very end when in a stylised marathon involving the entire cast of 21, everyone is a winner, achieving their goal and congratulating each other on their individual successes which have become a collective acheivement.

Faster, as the name might suggest, is just that, keeping up an unrelenting pace broken only with pauses on islands of reflection as breaks between rounds, such as when Ambra Vallo goes through a balletic gymnastics routine with two vest clad helpers.

It is slow, controlled and elegant with just a hint of trepidation, a posh word for terror, on her face in the execution of unfamiliar lifts which are more at home in the world of sawdust and acrobats than the more refined universe of ballerinas.

Elisha Willis as the musical comedy star Gertude Lawrence draped over The Master, Noël Coward, danced by Matthew Lawrence. The pair starred in Private Lives in the West  End in 1931 and later on Broadway

 There is also a fine pas de deux between Iain Mackay and Elisha Willis in costumes reminiscent of wrestlers, a clash which evolves into a solo triumph with Willis using Mackay as her podium.

We even have humour with an Olympic walker – who may still be going as he was at the curtain call.

A special mention here for Peter Mumford who designed the lighting including an impressive curtain of light in the opening sequence as the dancers, lit by a tiny patch of light on each leg were suddenly revealed as a wave of light swept upwards. That was classy as was the whole ballet which will join Bintley's growing body of impressive work in the BRB repertoire.

The Grand Tour is the height of elegance in ballet with the music of Noël Coward arranged and adapted by Hershy Kay and choreography by Broadway choreographer and director Joe Layon with designs by John Conklin.

The set is a first class (very) deck on a transatlantic liner where we are introduced to passengers such as Gertrude Lawrence (Elisha Willis) and Coward himself (Matthew Lawrence) whose dances are, should we say, less than labour intensive - hardly enough to shake the ash from the cigarette in his long, stylish holder in fact.

Samara Downs as Hollywood silent film star Theda Bara, one of the early sex symbols of the cinema, who was nicknamed The Vamp. short for Vampire.

Then there are the united artists, Douglas Fairbanks (Joseph Caley) and Mary Pickford (Carol-Anne Millar), full of youthful exuberance as well as the jigs and clicking heels of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (Jonathan Payn) who seemed to have an eye for the ladies, especially early movie sex symbol Theda Bara (Samara Downs).

A pair who didn't really catch GBS's eye though were Alice B Toklas (Jade Heusen) and her lifelong partner Gertrude Stein (Rory Mackay), Stein being a role created specifically for a man – Gertrude was never what might be described as a “looker”.

Amid all the fame and fortune we find a rather pushy American lady, camera at the ready, (Victoria Marr) who Cowards asks to dance for the amusement of his fellow passengers.

The result is a funny, and very clever pas de deux with chief steward Jamie Bond with Marr dancing the dance of someone who can't dance – if you see what I mean, and it is no easier to do than it sounds.

The music is familiar with songs such as Mad Dogs and English Men, I'll See You Again, The Stately Homes of England with Rule Britannia, Drunken Sailor and The Sailor's Hornpipe thrown in.

We even have a song, sort of, when Lawrence as Coward mimes to a crackly recording of Coward singing Half-Caste Woman.

It is a piece with a talent to amuse – as Coward might have put it and on this performance, he would have loved it.

Nao Sakuma, who is always a delight to watch, as Queen of the Fairies, Titania. Picture: Bill Cooper

The final part of the trilogy was Frederick Ashton's The Dream based on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with music by Felix Mendelssohn. The ballet takes just the section of the play in the forest outside Athens as Hermia (Samara Downs) and Lysander (Steven Monteith) prepare to elope while Demetrius (Mathew Lawrence), who has been promised Hermia's hand in marriage by her father, chases after his bride to be pursued in turn by Helena (Carol-Anne Millar) who loves him. Are you keeping up at the back?

A mix up with magic love potions by Puck (Mathias Dingman) adds to the confusion amid our mortal lovers while Oberon (Chi Cao), king of the fairies, has his own fun with the Queen, Titania (Nao Sakuma) using secret herbs to make her fall in love with brainless rustic Bottom, usefully given an ass's head by Puck.

As in the play, it all comes right in the end, but only after some fine dancing including a touching pas de deux between Titania and her lover Bottom in his ass's head much of it en pointe, or en hoof in this case by Dingman, and another duet between Nao and Chi Cao before we get to Mendelssohn's famous Wedding March to round off an evening of quality and variety with something for every taste.

Roger Clarke 

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