Sadler’s Wells, London
October 30, 2018
Joy Wang X.Y.
The subtext to Birmingham Royal Ballet’s double bill, Fire and Fury, reads “Two Ballets fueled by power and politics”. It is rare when a performance does exactly what it promises to do but power and politics is precisely what this double bill is about. If one, The King Dances, is about the creation of power, the other, Ignite, with its anarchist impulse could be about its destruction.
The King Dances by David Bintley is loosely based on Le Ballet de la nuit, a thirteen-hour performance that showcased the young Louis XIV. It is a reimagination of time when dance was pomp, a form of political theatre which aim was not just entertainment or catharsis but the creation of a body politic. To put it simply, it was another way of doing government; and dance was part of that government. Dance was politics. The King Dances has both anthropological purchase (if anything it offers insight into the proximity of dance to power) and, more importantly, it is a wonderful, atmospheric piece.
Tyronne Singleton infuses La Nuit’s stylized gestures with a machismo elegance and a seductive hint of danger. The thrust of his hand has the splendor of a sun burst and his spine, as erect as a spectre, never folds. Power, it would appear, does not bend. But as the ballet moves into more contemporary territory, La Roi in the form of Max Maslen does bend: to the moon (in the form of Zhang Yijing), to the demons in his mind, to the troubling phantoms of kingship. Here, courtly restraint gives way to grotesque looking creatures that torment the young king. But the chaos of his mind has no place in a cosmos that demands absolute order. When La Roi reemerges, now the sun king in full apollonian brilliance, he resembles a demigod. In a way, his final apparition feels no more real than the formless, faceless shifts of his nightmares. They are both myth. Power sometimes is but a masquerade.
If in The King Dances the dancer was both the bearer of meaning and its embodied sublimation; in Ignite by Juanjo Arqués the dancers represent disembodied forces. They are water, fire, destruction elements inspired by Turner’s painting, The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, and for which Arques imagines a interiority.
Ignite starts of quietly; the rippling effect of the costume and the spiraling contours of the dancer’s movement generating a disquieting calm. But as the ballet builds, it opens up to interesting angles that appear to contrast smooth surfaces with ragged edges; rounded positions are given a flatter dimension. At one point the women are held aloft like flagpoles and in a vertical motion descend into lifts close to the ground suggesting perhaps, in one terrifying swoop, both the awesome nature of fire and the fragility of the world it leaves behind. Here today (on top), gone tomorrow (below). Delia Matthews is quietly poignant as River; the slippery streams of her movement seemingly echoing the fluid run-ons of time. And, as Fire, Brandon Lawrence burns with intensity.
Perhaps the piece’s beauty, and the moments when it comes into strongest narrative focus, lies in the moments when Aqrués imagines what must have come on either side of the painting; the burning edifice symbolic of the entrance of a brave new world and those who must watch it burn. He doesn’t tell us what comes after; but that the ballet leaves us wondering is to its great merit.