Didy Veldman’s Sense of Time shakes up Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome
June 12, 2019

David Mead

One world premiere, one very new ballet, and another just seven years old: that’s Birmingham Royal Ballet’s [Un]Leashed programme. But if there’s a connection between them besides their youth, it’s that the eye-catching sets are totally integral to the choreography in all three, be it Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen’s concertina softwalls of Jessica Lang’s Lyric Pieces, Joana Dias’ wall of suitcases in Didy Veldman’s new Sense of Time, or Spike Kilburn’s scaffolding ‘tree’ of Ruth Brill’s Peter and the Wolf.

Lang’s Lyric Pieces, danced to a series of short piano pieces by Edvard Grieg is a little gem. Looking at those black concertina softwalls, which the dancers manipulate into new shapes for each section, you can’t help but be reminded of the crinkly paper you get in the top of boxes of chocolates. And just like them, the ballet is packed with tasty delights.

Yvette Knight in 'Peasant's Song' from Lyric Pieces by Jessica LangPhoto Phil Hitchman
Yvette Knight in ‘Peasant’s Song’ from Lyric Pieces by Jessica Lang
Photo Phil Hitchman

The dance is beautifully textured. Everyone will have their own favourites. The Peasant’s Song, a sublime solo by Yvette Knight, is followed by Norwegian Melody a full on duet for Brandon Lawrence and Tzu-chao Chou. The mood darkens for In Ballad Style, a slow and deeply felt solo for Chou that evokes thoughts of loss and longing. And then there’s Phantom, a duet in which Lawrence appears from between two walls of paper to meet Céline Gittens; two lovers meeting in a secret alleyway to dance, maybe, before he disappears just as silently as he arrived.

Grieg’s music was played beautifully by Jonathan Higgins.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Ballet Now project aims not just new ballets but also new traditions for the company; and the art form must not get stuck, traditions do need to move on. If Juanjo Arques’ Ignite took a step down that road, Veldman’s Sense of Time takes a giant leap. Very contemporary in nature, slightly ambiguous in meaning, it is one of the most interesting, innovative pieces to come out of the company in a long time.

Veldman’s ballet looks at stressful modern-day relationship with time. There are references to people being glued to mobile phones. It’s helped along by Gabriel Prokofiev’s new score that mixes electronic sound and live orchestra. It may not be the sort of thing I would sit and listen to, but it fits the dance well.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Didy Veldman's Sense of TimePhoto Bill Cooper
Birmingham Royal Ballet in Didy Veldman’s Sense of Time
Photo Bill Cooper

It’s busy and danced at pace. The opening sees small groups come and go, amid which Brandon Lawrence moves in slow-motion, emphasising the idea of time. It’s very physical too. All the time there is Dias’ wall of old leather suitcases. It dominates the stage, gliding forward and being turned again and again by two men in overalls like the hands of a clock. It almost seems to eat the cast, who look tiny against it. Those suitcases suggest travelling too. Indeed, some did see it as a reference to the concentration camps of the Second World War, or even Donald Trump’s infamous ‘wall’ on the Mexico-US border. I preferred to view it as a reflection of the barrier we create around ourselves with social media and such like as we travel through life, the luggage itself being our baggage.

The technology certainly creates a barrier for Delia Matthews and Tyrone Singleton, she forever looking at her phone despite his advances. But Veldman goes on to illustrate how we need to puncture holes in this ‘wall’, to break out and actually connect with real people once again; and connection there certainly is in a long pas de deux for Brandon Lawrence and Céline Gittens. It is possible to ‘talk’ if we put our devices down. I’m not exactly sure why Gabriel Anderson walks with his head inside a lit suitcase, though. Hiding from the real world, maybe?

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Peter and the Wolf by Ruth BrillPhoto Andrew Ross
Birmingham Royal Ballet in Peter and the Wolf by Ruth Brill
Photo Andrew Ross

Rounding off the programme, Ruth Brill’s Peter and the Wolf is bright, colourful, charming, and cheerful. It will appeal hugely to children, and has great merit as in introduction to ballet, just as Sergei Prokofiev’s (Gabriel’s grandfather) score is an introduction to the orchestra. Kilburn’s urban wasteland set is a delight too; and the story is clearly told, although the score and text are so prescriptive it’s pretty difficult to not to. But oh for a little depth, a hint of darkness. Being family-friendly is fine, but it is taken to its limit. The creators also missed a trick by not having the narrator live on stage, for Birmingham at least.

A couple of weeks ago, I mused whether the ballet would hold up to a second viewing. It did partly, and did raise a smile now and again, but only because the first cast (seen here) seemed much more animated than the one seen in Northampton. Laura Day was a breezy and perky Peter (the fact Peter is a girl doesn’t jar one jot) and Tzu-chao Chou made the most of some tricky footwork as the bird (but do we really need the unimaginative and constant bird arms?). The hunters (also all-female), all dressed up for a night on the town, are mildly amusing, although vengeful and violent (as the programme claimed) they most definitely are not. The Cat (Samara Downs), Wolf (Mathias Dingman) and Duck (Brooke Ray) get very little to do in what is very much a ballet for children. I’m not only surprised someone thought putting it on a main programme was a good idea, I can’t help wondering if this is really the best use of top-notch principal dancers.

[Un]Leashed continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to Saturday June 15, 2019. Birmingham Royal Ballet then dance David Bintley’s Hobson’s Choice from June 19-22.

[UnLeashed] can also be seen at Sadler’s Wells on June 25 & 26, with Hobson’s Choice on June 28 & 29.