Modern, exciting and about their city: Birmingham Royal Ballet in Curated by Carlos

Birmingham REP
June 10, 2021

David Mead

There is a line in Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey’s text that accompanies choreographer Miguel Altunaga’s new City of a Thousand Trades that goes, “To gain something, you have to be brave enough to risk everything.” And Altunaga’s ballet is a risk. Danced in socks with a very contemporary, modern feel and movement vocabulary, it’s unlike anything Birmingham Royal Ballet has produced in recent times. It’s also quite superb, an industrious ballet with a big heart; a heart that is Birmingham.

Produced in association with the REP and with the theatre’s associate director Madeleine Kludje as dramaturg, the ballet has been described as a love letter to the city. Full of feeling it evokes beautifully its diversity. Birmingham has long attracted economic migrants looking for work in its burgeoning industries. City of a Thousand Trades reflects that, opening with dancers slowly walking on, dressed in designer Giulia Scrimieri’s everyday jeans and tops. “Standing on the edge of emptiness,” to quote Bailey again, they look lost as they touch and hold the moveable blocks and poles that litter the stage.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in City of a Thousand Trades by Miguel Altunaga,
part of Curated by Carlos at the Birmingham REP
Photo Johan Persson

“Let me show you my home,” says Bailey; and Altunaga and the dancers do just that. The choreography is often fast-paced and comes in waves. There are sweeping turns and falls to the floor. It’s frequently individual and representative of real feelings and emotions, none more so in a series of short solos to the voices of real Brummies talking about their lives, their experiences.

But City of a Thousand Trades is very much an ensemble piece and brilliantly constructed, free-flowing unison moments emerge easily out of that. Yes, a city of individuals but also a city of people that can make common purpose and that are proud of the place they call home. Without exception, the company dancers were magnificent, although special mention must be made of the always powerful Tyrone Singleton and Brandon Lawrence; Darel Pérez, who spun like a top; and the tall Lucy Waine, who stood out again and again.

Lucy Waine in City of a Thousand Trades
Photo Johan Persson

The scene is added to enormously by Belgian composer Mathias Coppens, who intertwines those testimonies and Bailey’s poetry with sounds of from the city to create an evocative soundscape.

Alongside the small orchestra and its soulful strings, there’s an electric guitar, and best all of all, lots of percussion, played by Kevin Earley and Grahame King sat on scaffolding at the back of the stage above the action. Metal instruments and the sound of hammer on anvil represent the trades, while multiple drums represent the city’s different ethnic groups. There’s even a brake drum from a van (motor industry), a washing machine drum (electrical engineering), and bottles. It sounds odd but it works a treat and is a million miles from the difficult listen of so much contemporary dance music.

City of a Thousand Trades is about building a city, building a home. It ends with that upstage scaffolding strip lit. It’s not a massive leap of imagination to see a modern city there. Just as important as the strong connection it makes to the city and its people, is that it’s a ballet that exudes hope and has a deep underlying optimism. The REP audience gave it a huge ovation, and quite rightly too.

My only concern is that, although the work clearly has universal themes, despite being Birmingham inspired, will it work away from the city? Will someone without links to the city feel it the same way as someone who does?

The second world premiere of the evening, Daniela Cardim’s Imminent, explores the feeling that something significant is looming and change is imminent, with a particular nod towards climate change. It opens in front of a backdrop of a snowy mountain cliff. It’s dawn, the rising sun glints off it. The dance has lightness and freedom as Cardim puts together classical steps with ease to Paul Englishby’s largely melodic music, the full Royal Ballet Sinfonia playing live but linked by monitor from an upstairs studio, the REP’s pit being too small to accommodate everyone. April Dalton’s light dresses for the women are beautiful. Using the same material for the men’s vests, and tight and very short shorts, does not do them any favours however.

Amid all this, Eilis Small seems alone in being concerned, frequently dropping out of the ensemble, looking worried that something bad was about to happen. Sure enough, that backdrop suddenly glows red as if licked by flames (fires and rain forest destruction in Brazil). When a door, strangely angular given the nature of the rest of the design, opens in the backcloth, other dancers join her in looking through it albeit fairly disinterestedly. Any narrative then sadly falls apart as, led by Small, they do eventually pass through, but why, especially given previous unconcern? I felt indifferent too. Imminent may be pleasant, but does the subject matter demand more? It certainly doesn’t reach out and grab you.

Alexander Yap and Eilis Small in Imminent by Daniela Cardim
Photo Johan Persson

Goyo Montero’s Chacona rounds the Curated by Carlos programme off in fine style, however. There’s an excitement and an energy right from the off as the four lines of four dancers are awoken by Robert Gibbs’ violin and the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No.2 in D Minor.

The choreography surfs the music, reflecting the different tones, flavours and moods of the onstage violin, guitar (Tom Ellis) and piano (Jonathan Higgins). The ensemble washes back and forth like water rippling to one side of a pool then the other. They sweep in circles. They crowd Gibbs like moths drawn to a flame, before rushing to the opposite corner drawn to its light. As the dance ebbs and flows, Montero makes much use of canon but always tosses in interest by making the odd tweak.

Although another ballet that very much relies on the power of the ensemble, individuals do nonetheless occasionally emerge, and there’s a super athletic, all-too-short duet for Haoliang Feng and Yuki Sugiura. A special mention too for the excellent lighting (the chessboard effect is particularly effective) by Montero and Nicolás Fischtel.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Chacona by Goyo Montero
Photo Johan Persson

Curated by Carlos is a super programme of dance, of ballet, that in City of a Thousand Trades and Chacona especially, is very much of today; classically rooted but with a distinct contemporary edge and energy grafted on. It’s more evidence of the exciting direction that Acosta is taking Birmingham Royal Ballet, although that’s not to say that the past is being forgotten, as the return of David Bintley’s Cinderella on June 18 testifies.

Going back to that line in Bailey’s poem, it echoes something Jiří Kylián recently told a young dancer at NDT2. “If you don’t take the risk, it will always be catastrophic. If you do take the risk, it could be catastrophic, but you could create something special.” That applies to directors too. Carlos Acosta is taking risks with his new artistic approach at Birmingham Royal Ballet (it’s been a long time since the company dared put two world premieres and a company premiere on the same programme), but if this evening, and Altunaga’s ballet in particular, is anything to go by, he is already on the way to making the company a vibrant, creative hotbed once more.

Curated by Carlos continues at the Birmingham REP to June 12, 2021.

For those not able to get to the REP, City of a Thousand Trades is being streamed Sunday June 13 at 7.30pm, 8.30pm and 9.30pm as part of the Birmingham International Dance Festival. Tickets are £4.50, bookable via

Birmingham Royal Ballet then dance David Bintley’s Cinderella at the REP from June 18-26, 2021.