Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
March 13, 2019
Beauty and the Beast is certainly one of the easier fairy tales to translate into dance. Its very title is an evocative pairing based on contrast, a fruitful beginning for working with movement. David Bintley’s 2003 adaptation of the tale for Birmingham Royal Ballet delivers ornate visuals, choreography with musical flair and intricate footwork, and animated characters for young viewers to giggle over.
Delia Mathews dances the heroine, Belle; we open on her poised at the top of her library, picturesquely lost in a book. Underneath, a prince, danced by Tyrone Singleton, chases a fox, only to be turned into a beast as punishment. The two worlds collide when Belle’s father, the Merchant, is held to ransom by the Beast after stealing a rose from his castle. The Merchant is only allowed to escape if he sends Belle to the Beast’s castle.
Mathews is a lithe, grandiose dancer whose lines seem to extend beyond her and whose seamless ability to traverse the stage with little effort is compelling. This magnificence can sometimes border on austere but is mostly striking to watch. Singleton is a markedly more emotive dancer, with springing jumps, daring struts and an expression of profound relief when he is released from the spell. Indeed, in this moment when he is unmasked, it retrospectively seems a shame that he is masked for most of the piece.
Particular audience favourites include the benign Monsieur Cochon, danced by James Barton, and the merry ring of sycophants and gourmands who waddle behind him. What it is people are laughing at is unclear (a fondness for aristocratic eccentricity or an indulged delight in the characters’ voracious ways?) but, paired with Bintley’s fondness for quick, nimble footwork, Cochon is warmly welcomed each time he returns to the stage.
Ruth Brill and Samara Downs are the tittering and spoilt yet affable sisters, while Yaoqian Shang and Beatrice Parma as the Wild Girl and Vixen, respectively, are superb in their canny jumps and playful demeanour.
The stand out of the show is undoubtedly the designs by Philip Prowse. The sets are precise and neat, but never cold; they evoke with stark simplicity the wilderness and the otherworldly, without ever cluttering the stage or becoming too busy. They often provide a clear framing within the space, until we move inside the Prince’s palace. A vast, smoky interior that encroaches the edges of the stage, it emphasises the isolation of and emptiness within the Beast himself.
The meat of the production ultimately lies in all the characters and surroundings beyond the central couple. The dancing by the artists of the company in particular sometimes reaches intricate heights, such as in the dance of the Prince’s now beastly male companions, who flit in and out of the shadows in arcing, soaring leaps.
The pas de deux between Belle and the Beast bely an underlying confusion. There’s a tenderness but the complexity of this relationship, which involves an unforgivable act of keeping someone against their will, is not tackled in the choreography or indeed the narrative of the production.
It is not for the critic to suggest what should be done, but one can’t help but feel that the knotty central relationship of an archetypically beautiful young girl trapped by a man equally reduced to beastly masculinity is a regressive and dangerous one when not fully examined. The retelling and preservation of fairy tales does not have to entail the perpetuating of outdated and repressive views.