Ignite by Juanjo Arqués brings Ballet Now alive: Birmingham Royal Ballet in Fire & Fury

Birmingham Hippodrome
October 3, 2018

David Mead

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s autumn double bill, Fire & Fury, may look back into history, but in a way that also has great resonance to today. It’s a cracking programme that might also give a glimpse of the future as it also delivers a pair of intelligent, sleek and decidedly classy 21st-century ballets, both superbly danced and that demonstrate just how versatile the company can be given the chance.

First, a return visit to David Bintley’s The King Dances, inspired by and freely based on Le Ballet de la Nuit of 1653, in which 17th-century King Louis XIV of France appeared as Apollo, the Sun God. It’s a theatrical tour de force; a ballet that oozes grandeur and power, if anything more so than when first seen three years ago.

The curtain rises to reveal eight men, each with a large flambeau ablaze, the flames casting ever moving shadows on the otherwise black stage. As La Nuit (aka Cardinal Mazarin), Tyrone Singelton produces a compellingly mysterious, subtly sexy entrance full of the courtly steps of the time but cleverly and seamlessly integrated with the ballet of today.

Max Maslen as Le Roi and Tyrone Singleton as La Nuit in David Bintley's The King DancesPhoto Andrew Ross
Max Maslen as Le Roi and Tyrone Singleton as La Nuit
in David Bintley’s The King Dances
Photo Andrew Ross

This dancing not being for women, men in pannier skirts and white masks appear as Mesdames. Max Maslen as the Sun King floats in and out of proceedings but it is La Nuit who is at the centre of everything as he partners Selene, The Moon (danced by Yijing Zhang), in a subtle pas de deux.

Louis was known to have nightmares and these pop up in a section full of the demons of the night. The costumes are fabulous throughout, but Katrina Lindsay excels here, especially with a pair of werewolves. The Devil, appears in scarlet. The end is dramatic too. Louis’ radiant entry is almost that of a saint, glistening in his golden costume with a gleaming aureole around his head to match.

Delia Mathews as River with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Ignite by Juanjo ArquésPhoto Andrew Ross
Delia Mathews as River with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Ignite by Juanjo Arqués
Photo Andrew Ross

Ignite by Juanjo Arqués, the second in the Ballet Now series of new commissions, also looks back, this time to the dramatic London night of October 16, 1834 and the huge fire that burned down the Houses of Parliament.

Arqués, and librettist and dramaturg Fabienne Vegt, focus on the colours in one of William Turner’s two paintings of the evening. It’s an idea that has been very clearly and cleverly thought through, the ballet in many ways being like the painting: an interpretation of the event rather than a literal depiction.

The hues of the fire are translated effectively via the choreography, designs and music, and the fire itself is strikingly visible. A combination of set, lighting and smoke towards the end more than suggests a burning building, although we never actually see Parliament per se. But the painting is not only about the fire itself, it’s also about the sky and the river, both of which also play important roles in intelligent choreography that’s full of interest.

The dance largely flows naturally, moments of stillness exploding in action. Steps appear organically, groups and formations largely come and go with ease, the only exceptions being two lines that are formed at different times. Within it all are any number of unusual lifts and fabulous extensions, even interesting ensemble floorwork.

Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence as Fire in IgnitePhoto Andrew Ross
Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence as Fire in Ignite
Photo Andrew Ross

The red in the painting is interpreted by the Fire Couple, Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence, who move among the ensemble, eating the space. Preceding Ignition is the trio of Max Maslen, Miki Mizutani and Tzu-Chao Chou. Representing oxygen, heat and fuel, they move unpredictably with lots of interchange. Sparking movement off one another, they constantly connect, break away and reconnect.

The ballet and Turner’s painting may be about the fire, but the highlight comes in a more abstract but exquisite duet for the River and Sky, Delia Matthews and Mathias Dingman. It’s a brave choreographer that keeps a dancer still but I particularly liked the way River stood and simply watched for several minutes, just as the Thames ‘watched’ the unfolding drama on its southern bank. Sandwiching the duet is a calm section in which dancers in grey embody the flowing currents of the river.

Tatyana van Walsum’s designs are excellent too. The dance is reflected throughout in ten mirrored panels that are lowered and raised. They suggest artworks, give an impression of greater numbers, but most importantly give the dance a sense of height, the flames a sense of reaching into the sky. Down below, her colour palette draws on the hues of the painting. Her lightweight red and orange shirts in particular look remarkably like flames as the dancers move.

It ends quietly, like most fires do. Having lined up to face the audience, the whole ensemble retreat to the sound of crackling embers, yet another good moment in Kate Whitley’s new score, one complex and modern but that’s perfectly listenable to and fits the choreography rather well.

Ballet Now may got off to an interesting if sedate start with George Williamson’s Embrace, but Ignite is quite simply one of the best new ballets to have come out of Birmingham in years. Didy Veldman, the next choreographer in the series, has quite an act to follow.

Fire & Fury continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to October 6, then tours to the Theatre Royal, Plymouth and Sadler’s Wells, London. Visit www.brb.org.uk for dates and links to booking sites.