October 22, 2020
“Ballet is back,” announced Alan Titchmarsh, welcoming the audience to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s return to the stage. A loud cheer followed that belied the fact that the 800-seat Birmingham REP only had around 120 socially-distanced patrons for the opening night of the new Lazuli Sky programme of one world and two company premieres.
A warm welcome too for artistic director Carlos Acosta, who added, “Now we are back where we belong.” More good news came when he said that the company hoped to follow up the announcement of what he described as a “full-scale” Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall between Christmas and New Year, with news of a Birmingham Nutcracker in the coming days.
There’s a lot of positivity and a ‘can do’ attitude coming out of Birmingham Royal Ballet these days. That’s reflected in Lazuli Sky, Will Tuckett’s new ballet from which the programme takes its title and that more than hints at a new dawn.
The first one-act ballet commissioned and presented by Acosta since taking over the company leadership a year ago, Lazuli Sky is inspired by ideas of social distancing. In stark contrast to most works inspired by situations resulting from the pandemic, and helped along John Adams’ Shaker Loops, played live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, it’s full of vitality. A welcome breath of fresh air, in fact
It opens with its twelve dancers suitably spaced on a lighting-created grid of unequal squares. A nod to the way some studios have been marked and dancers confined, no doubt. Fortunately, the cast soon break free of their own space as the ensemble sweep across the stage. It’s an exhilarating ride, Tuckett’s modern choreography matching the score a treat as it follows its loops and brims with energy.
Nina Dunn’s projections contribute hugely to the scene, especially a floating, morphing rectangle on a gauze in front of the dancers. As it constantly shifts, the shape almost appears 3-D and to reach out above the audience. Behind, and later on the stage floor too, are more projections, although they never over-dominate. During the Renaissance, Lapis Lazuli was the base for the most expensive colour in the artist’s palette, used to create clear blue skies. Sure enough, those skies are there, but also clouds and plenty of less distinct but striking images that appear to be taken from landscapes. Are those sun-edges branches? Is that golden alluvial? I do think you can hear rippling water in the music.
In contrast, Samuel Wyer’s costumes of vests, shorts and even a hoodie are in muted greys. Yet that is precisely what is needed against the colour and the business happening elsewhere. Together with the projections, they work a treat.
Back to the dancing, and smaller groups break from the ensemble including a male duet. There are also interesting uneven splits, a seven and five for example. Later, as the music slows and catches its breath, there’s a long pas de deux as things turn all mysterious and enigmatic. I couldn’t help but search for meaning as Yu Kurihara and Tom Rogers twisted and turned around one another, sometimes at the centre of swirling shapes that seem to emerge from the stage. I’m still looking, although I like to think of it as a gaze ahead to reuniting with family, friends and loved ones. Whatever, it is decidedly appealing.
Maybe there are just a few too many ideas but other surprises include dancers in huge white fan skirts. The piece does rather fade and lose impact towards the end, however, although so does the music, the coda just being endless sonic waves. But it was a fine way, a very modern way, a very optimistic way, to round off the evening.
Made way back in 1976, the opening Our Waltzes by the renowned late Venezuelan choreographer Vicente Nebrada is a favourite around the world. It’s easy to see why. It’s a delight.
A feast of partnering and playfully sublime, it’s danced by five couples in different colours to piano waltzes by Teresa Carreño and Ramón Delgado Palacios, here played live on stage by Jonathan Higgins. It’s impossible not to make comparisons with Jerome Robbins’ equally pleasurable Dances at a Gathering.
Half an hour of waltzes and clinging partners could get boring. That it doesn’t is down to some neat patterning and interchanging of partners in the ensemble sections where the couples make beautiful paths as the dance transitions to the next scene, and Nebrada having each couple represent a different emotion.
Fluidity reigns in each of the pas de deux. Momoko Hirata and César Morales in red are the most Latin. They are fiery, passionate, their dance the most virtuosic. In contrast, Yijing Zhang and Yasuo Atsuji in brown are light and playful. There’s a hint of narrative when Samara Downs in lilac rushes on having lost her partner Tyrone Singleton. Relieved to find each other, they are the most mature one senses, their dance and relationship superbly controlled but also the most dramatically intense. Yaoqian Shang and Mathias Dingman in pink exude the happiness of simply being in love. Miki Mizutani and Tzu-Chao Chou in orange are youthfully exuberant. Unlike the other duets, theirs involves little physical partnering but lots of perfectly executed fast combinations full of small jumps.
Between Our Waltzes and Lazuli Sky sits Liebestod, a powerful, visceral male solo choreographed by Valery Panov to an arrangement of the closing music from Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. It’s an eight-minute gem that I am surprised I’ve never come across in a gala.
In the opera, Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body. Panov’s choreography suggests awakening and floating before the dance echoes the score as it turns ecstatic, soaring with big, dramatic jumps and gestures. It could have been made for Brandon Lawrence. Peter Teigen’s lighting picked up every sinew in his sleek and powerful body, every lean line as his limbs extended and came to life, as every note resounded through his bones.
It’s formidable, stunningly beautiful and simply magnificent.
Welcome back, Birmingham Royal Ballet!
Lazuli Sky is at the Birmingham REP to October 24, 2020 before moving to London’s Sadler’s Wells from October 29-31. Tickets are sold out for all dates, although it may be worth checking for returns at www.birmingham-rep.co.uk and www.sadlerswells.com respectively.
The show has also been filmed for digital broadcast from for seven days from 12 noon on November 1, 2020. Tickets are available from www.brb.org.uk/lazuli-sky-film.