Nao shines through the gloom

You pays your money and you takes your choice: Victoria Marr as Fière, Jonathan Payne as the foppish suitor Monsieur Cochon and Samara Downs as Vanité. Picture: Roy Smiljanic

Beauty and the Beast

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

THE centuries' old fairy tale is brought to life in this magnificent dark, brooding, gothic, sumptuous ballet created by Birmingham Royal Ballet's director David Bintley who added a few twists of his own to the tale of the evil prince who finds redemption through love.

The folk tale is a simple one. A prince who is self centred, arrogant, cruel and any other nasty description you can think of, is out hunting with his boorish, yobbo, ASBOS-R-US mates and is about to kill a vixen when she is rescued by a kindly, but wrathful, woodsman with a flair for magic.

The woodsman with a sweep of his cape – a cape the size of Dudley incidentally – turns the vixen into a beautiful, red haired wild girl and the Prince into a beast and all his mates into wild animals because that is how he sees them.

Meanwhile a merchant with three daughters, loses all his wealth and to put the tin hat on it has a run in over a rose with the now beastly prince and, in return for his miserable life,  has to agree to send his youngest daughter to his castle.

She arrives, the beast falls in love, she leaves, he pines and is about to die, she returns tells him she loves him, the curse is lifted, he is the handsome, but now chastened prince, and they all live happily ever after and everyone goes home.

Nao Sakuma is a delight as Belle, the beauty of the piece. She is every little girls' vision of a ballerina and defies logic by seemingly stretching the boundaries each time she appears. She can be demure, graceful, funny, mischievous, full of pathos and tragedy or tender and romantic and she dances with that indefinable something that lifts technical excellence into another realm.

The wonderful Robert Parker was to have been the Beast in a sort of swansong, or as this is ballet perhaps a dying swansong, before he takes up his new role as artistic director of  Elmhurst School of Dance.

But Hull's, and indeed one of Britain's finest has knackered his back so the part was left in the more than competent hands of Iain Mackay who brings an athleticism to any role and who gave us a sympathetic beast as well as two very different versions of the same prince – quality stuff.

Iain Mackay as the transformed handsome prince who is now a good guy with his Belle, Nao Sakuma

Their first pas de deux, danced beautifully, shows a mix of repulsion and tenderness as Belle sees what she has been lumbered with by her father and it dawns on the beastly prince just what his errant past has denied him.

Jonathan Payn was a comic delight as Monsieur Chochon, the Tweedle Dum of a suitor for one - either will do really - of Belles' sisters Fière and Vanité, danced with great charm by Victoria Marr and Samara Downs while Michael O'Hare, as the girls' ruined merchant father, looked suitably worried, frightened and finally delighted as the story unfolded before him.

As usual Marion Tait was a scene stealer, this time as the crotchety, arthritic, grumpy old battleaxe of Grandmère who seemed to have much in common with Giles' cartoon granny.

She managed to give pretty well everyone a whack or prod with her stick or a telling glare through the prinz-nez. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril.

There were telling contributions from Ambra Vallo as the Wild Girl, the human form of the rescued vixen, and also by Joseph Caley as the Raven, one of the beastly friends of the beastly prince. The cuddly vixen, incidentally, was danced by Laura-Jane Gibson.

As we have come to expect from Birmingham Royal Ballet the scenery was magnificent with huge monolithic cliffs come castle walls which glided around the stage, a magic claret jug pouring on its own and even a line of birds on a wall which suddenly became animated.

Marion Tait as the grumpy granny - and looking at the state of the village dandy of a guest at the wedding feast who can blame her

With hardly a pause we find ourselves in a merchant's house, a forest, under dark and brooding cliffs, in a gloomy castle or as guests at a glittering ball all in a magical fluid set complemented by rich and glorious costumes designed by Philip Prowse. It is almost worth a visit just to see Prowse's handiwork.

Mark Jonathan's lighting is more of a moot point. It is a personal thing but I am not a great lover of dark and gloomy although I do accept that they are the hallmarks of gothic and that the brilliant sparkles on Belle's dress, and glints of light out of the darkness would have been lost on a brighter stage.

The gloom and half light certainly gives a dramatic contrast to the warm, rich golden lighting of the ball scene.

As I said it is a personal dislike and that aside I can appreciate the skill and work that has gone into the lighting which all added to the effect and the story.

The score, by contemporary Canadian composer Glenn Buhr, is not one of the most memorable in ballet – no tunes to hum on the train home here - but it is suitably dramatic when needed and lyrical for the more tender moments, and Paul Murphy and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia can never be faulted on either delivery or interpretation.

It is a ballet which was premiered by BRB in 2003 and has toured Britain three times as well as being taken to Hong Kong, Japan and China and has grown into a solid narrative ballet in the BRB armoury which is beautifully danced and magnificently staged. To 02-09-11

Roger Clarke

 And from the dark side . . . .

****

DON'T mistake this production for the musical of the same name, even though the much-loved fairytale has the same happy ending with the beast transformed back into a handsome prince.

No human teapots, cups and saucers, clocks or candelabra here, and the story opens with the cruel prince coming under the spell of a mystery woodsman who saves a pretty vixen from thoughtless huntsmen.

The first half of the ballet is more beastly than beauty, full of anger, dark costumes and scenery as well as a darkened stage, and even bailiffs turn up to confiscate furniture from the home of Belle's debt-troubled merchant father whose ships haven't come in.

There is, however, a complete transformation after the interval when the lavish gold decorations inside the Beast's castle simply glow as a gathering of people also turned into remarkable creatures dance beautifully at a special ball.

Here the brilliant lighting effects designed by Mark Jonathan come into their own, and the costumes are superb, too. David Bintley's choreography, as ever, is a delight.

There are outstanding performances from Nao Sakuma (Belle) and Iain Mackay (The Beast), while Glenn Buhr's music is perfectly delivered by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Murphy. To 02.10.11

Paul Marston

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