A digital celebration: Birmingham Royal Ballet at 30

Online, filmed at Birmingham Town Hall
November 19, 2020

David Mead

Time flies. It seems amazing that it’s now thirty years since the then Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet moved to Birmingham as Birmingham Royal Ballet. Thanks to former directors Sir Peter Wright and David Bintley, it has gone from strength to strength.

Circumstances mean that the company is sadly unable to celebrate the milestone in person. Instead, it put together a short triple-bill, filmed on the stage of the Roman Revival-style Town Hall (incidentally, believed to be the oldest surviving concert hall of its size in the world).

Introducing the streaming and in a piece of masterful understatement, present artistic director Carlos Acosta observed that, “My first year as director didn’t go as planned.” But as he added, the company has managed to bring ballet back, and live with an audience, thanks to what promises to be a fruitful partnership going forward with the Birmingham REP.

Brandon Lawrence and Yijing Zhang in End of Time by Ben StevensonScreenshot from film
Brandon Lawrence and Yijing Zhang
in End of Time by Ben Stevenson
Screenshot from film

Set to Sergei Rachmaninov’s elegiac Cello Sonata in G Minor, Ben Stevenson’s quiet and poignant pas de deux End of Time was made in 1984 for the International Ballet Competition in Japan, where it won gold medal for choreography, and silver medals for dancers Li Cunxin and Martha Butler. Inspired by Stanley Kramer’s post-apocalypse 1959 film On the Beach, it shows the last two people on earth.

Brandon Lawrence and Yijing Zhang are bewitching as they offer each other comfort. Gorgeous poetic lines abound. Some of the partnering is incredibly difficult and calls for a lot of trust. There are drags along the floor, off-centre balances, falls in which the man must catch the women a split second before she hits the floor and, best of all, some sweeping lifts including one where she travels round his shoulders as he turns. Lawrence and Zhang did it all with aplomb, making it look so, so easy. It ends with Lawrence on the floor, Zhang leaning over him, her arms reaching heavenwards before they float slowly to the floor. Quite, quite beautiful.

Tzu-Chao Chou in Liebestod. Photo Johan Persson
Tzu-Chao Chou in Liebestod
. Photo Johan Persson

It’s always fascinating to see how different interpretations of dances can be. In Valery Panov’s Liebestod, Tzu-Chao Chou gave the solo a very different personality to Lawrence, who I saw dance it on the recent Lazuli Sky programme. There is still very much the sense of awakening, and I still see similarities with L’après-midi d’un faune, but Chou presented a much lighter, brighter figure. Face and body suggested he was revelling in the thrill of discovering himself and the sheer joy of moving, leaping, turning.

The broadcast closed with Jorge Garcia’s Majisimo set to music from Massenet’s opera Le Cid. The lively Hispanic ballet is an audience-pleasing showcase for its four couples. It’s full of full of posturing (it’s easy to see why the Trocks have parodied it) and opportunities to show off. Despite some impressive spins and turns, it doesn’t always have the dazzle and energy you might expect, however. Even so, the cast played it for all its worth.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Majismo by Jorge Garciabeneath the Birmingham Town Hall's impressive organScreenshot from film
Birmingham Royal Ballet in Majisimo by Jorge Garcia
beneath the Birmingham Town Hall’s impressive organ
Screenshot from film

Birmingham Royal Ballet at 30 was an enjoyable evening, but with not a single excerpt from the past three decades, it was perhaps more a looking forward than a looking back. While recognising the vast repertory the company has, Acosta spoke of the need to find ballets that “stretch dancers in different directions.” Having said that, it was impossible not to spot that two of the three ballets danced here are from the repertory of Acosta Danza.

Elsewhere, Acosta spoke forcefully about the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s work away from the stage, although two super interludes from participants made the point even better. Shireena Ingram and Linden Walcott-Burton (who memorably played Lady Capulet and Tybalt in the stage production) spoke persuasively about how their participation in the 2006 Ballet Hoo! project changed their lives. Following them, youngsters Lucy and William, who have both taken part in Dance Track for five years, talked eloquently about the project, how it has opened their eyes to ballet, their role models and hopes for the future.

They are just a few of the reasons why it’s also good to hear Acosta say how he recognises the need to connect and reconnect with the Birmingham community, including the pool of talent within it, at Elmhurst Ballet School, and through local projects like Dance Track. After all, however strong its links with Sadler’s Wells or other institutions might be, BRB is Birmingham’s company.

Birmingham Royal Ballet at 30 can be watched at www.brb.org.uk until Thursday November 26, 2020.