A triple bill to thrill: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Into the Music

Birmingham Hippodrome
October 22, 2022

Back in the day, mixed programmes from Birmingham Royal Ballet often used to be challenging, for dancers as well as audiences. There were lots of them. And they were exciting too. Not everything worked, but they were never dull and full of talking points. Into the Music, an evening of two company premieres and one world premiere, feels like a throwback to those heady days. Featuring the deeply moving Forgotten Land by Jiří Kylián, the innovative and disturbing Hotel by Morgann Runacre-Temple, or the thrilling dance of Uwe Scholz’s The Seventh Symphony, it is a wonderfully varied evening, packed with interest, and quite outstanding dancing.

Made for Stuttgart Ballet in 1981, Forgotten Land is a largely sombre work for three principal and three supporting couples. It’s about real people and what makes us human, and that truism that, while we may be in the here and now, we cannot help but look back at the memories we carry.

Yijing Zhang and Brandon Lawrence in Forgotten Land by Jiří Kylián
Photo Johan Persson

The tone is set immediately, the cast standing, backs to the audience gazing into the distance of John McFarlane’s impressionist, mystical seascape. At first it feels like a storm is approaching, but the funeral drum and wind (Kylián himself, breathing into a microphone) suggest more the end of life.

Apart from Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, to which it is danced, the work also owes much to Edvard Munch’s Dance of Life, which depicts a woman in three stages of her life set against an ocean backdrop, all reflected in the choreography

Mathias Dingman and Miki Mizutani in Forgotten Land
Photo Johan Persson

In white, Yijing Zhang and Brandon Lawrence show the beginnings of love and their relationship. In red, the fiery Miki Mizutani and Mathias Dingman suggest speed and passionate abandon. So, to Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton in black, the mature couple who have come through struggles and fights but for whom the end seems to be nearing.

In all three partnerships, the choreography lays the relationship bare. We see the performers as real people. The dance breathes. It speaks volumes. Deep, extended arabesques seem to grow from the heart of the body to reveal feelings. There’s often a softness. The partnering was superb. There’s a lot of giving and receiving of weight, a lot of physical supporting, often in unusual ways, but it was always silky smooth.

Céline GIttens and Tyrone Singleton in Forgotten Land
Photo Johan Persson

Kylián’s work has taken a long time to reach Birmingham, but Forgotten Land is aural and visual poetry

At first glance, the establishment in Morgann Runacre-Temple’s Hotel is a quirky sort of place. Its staff are a little bit eccentric, not least bell boys Riku Ito, Eric Pinto Cata and Gus Payne, who dance with the guests’ luggage and the luggage trolley. There’s also a food prep scene involving some sort of green mash that might put you off hotel dining for ever. Think Grand Budapest Hotel, and you are not far off.

Riku Ito with hotel guests Sofia Liñares and Javier Rojas
in Hotel by Morgann Runacre-Temple
Photo Johan Persson

But even as he checks his guests in, you get the feeling that there is something creepy about hotel manager Tzu-chao Chou. Sure enough, the hotel’s dark side is revealed as he seems to have hidden cameras in every room, from where he can monitor goings-on. You suspect assistant manager Beatrice Parma is in on it all too. Then, strange, surreal things start happening in the night.

True to form, Runacre-Temple and regular collaborator Jessica Wright (aka Jess and Morgs) bring everything to life using real-time and recorded video projected onto the scenery alongside the live action.

Matilde Rodrigues in Hotel
Photo Johan Persson

Repeating a device they used very successfully in their recent Coppélia for Scottish Ballet, the camera (Ito doubling as gimbal operator) follows the dancers into rooms, revealing secret lives and showing the audience what they would otherwise not see.

Very unusually, while the film is absolutely integral to proceedings, and there are times when Hotel is all about the film, there’s never any sense of it being in competition with the live action.

The second half sees the guests almost bewitched by the hotel. You suspect that they now can’t escape even if they were compos mentis enough to do so.

The use of film just gets better and better as ghostly images of live characters mixes with real people. Controlled by Chou, as they go in and out of rooms, it’s almost as if they are swallowed by the building. It’s almost hallucinogenic. And let’s not forget Mathilde Rodrigues brilliant arm head, or is it an ‘arm roving camera’?

Whether quirky and fun, or strange and surreal, Mikael Karlsson’s score helps create atmosphere and dictates the pace perfectly.

Hotel is a lot of fun, but also quite voyeuristic and, at times, rather disturbing.

Uwe Scholz may be a largely unknown name among British audiences, but his early death in 2004 aged just 45 was a great loss to German ballet. Bright, uplifting, exciting, full of energy and a glorious celebration of Beethoven’s music, The Seventh Symphony, also originally made for Stuttgart Ballet, is his one of his best works. Anyone who loves their ballet classical and exciting will thrill to it.

Bimringham Royal Ballet in The Seventh Symphony by Uwe Scholz
Photo Johan Persson

The way the choreography illustrates the music tells us Scholz truly understood the score, which marks the threat and first push back against Napoleon. Sure enough, the effervescent opening choreography is followed by a threatening second movement and a joyful third, before there’s a mad sprint for the finish in the fourth, where some of the dance is frighteningly fast.

Unlike when originally presented, different couples lead each movement. Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence in the first, Yaoqian Shang and Mathias Dingman in the second, César Morales and Max Maslen in the third, with everyone coming together for the fireworks of the fourth. Everyone fizzed and sparkled, and looked like they were having an absolute ball.

Karla Doorbar and Gus Payne in the Seventh Symphony
Photo Johan Persson

The choreography may be an unashamed celebration of the music but Scholz isn’t afraid to surprise. An expected repeat develops into something else. A slow extension ends with a sudden, unexpected flick. His quirkiness and sense of humour is on show too. A fairy normal female corps de ballet scene somehow morphs into a Bob Fosse showgirl number. In the third movement there’s a delightfully polite, ‘After you. No, after you’ moment.

The choreographer’s own designs, after American artist Morris Louis, are equally impressive, the backdrop of two cliffs forming an opening to the sea, each with ribbons of colour running down them, echoed by decoration on the dancers’ otherwise simple but sleek white costumes.

Into the Music. Quite simply the best mixed programme Birmingham Royal Ballet have presented for many, many years. More please!

Into the Music is next at Sadler’s Wells, London from November 2-5, 2022. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for tickets and details.