That’s Life: Sinatra and Tharp in an evening of moods and emotions at Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome
September 19, 2019

David Mead

The creative spark for young Australian choreographer and Queensland Ballet dancer Jack Lister’s A Brief Nostalgia came out of his discovery of saudade, a Portuguese term that has no equivalent in English but that is all about how you feel when you are long for someone or something but can’t quite put your feelings into words. It may even be something that never actually existed.

A Brief Nostalgia is the fourth in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s series of ten Ballet Now creations from mostly emerging choreographers, composers and designers. The ballet is about how we are all shaped by memories and how they can be triggered by a sight, a sound, a touch, a smell, or whatever. As does the saudade, it mixes loss and pain with beauty, all in a very personal way.

Therein lies one of the ballet’s biggest problems. Memories, longings, are very personal things, often hidden deep inside, known only to ourselves. The ballet is undoubtedly stacked with beautiful images, often created by the shadows cast by Alexander Berlage’s lighting on the stark cement-coloured walls of designer Thomas Mika’s set, but it is also terribly ambiguous. Grey is the dominant colour of the costumes too. In many ways, it sums the whole piece up. The ballet has hints of narrative, bust isn’t. It hints at melancholy and sadness but never quite gets there.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in A Brief Nostalgia by Jack ListerPhoto Ty Singleton
Birmingham Royal Ballet in A Brief Nostalgia by Jack Lister
Photo Ty Singleton

Dancers come and go repeatedly. There is a lot of running on and off at speed; probably too much. Some stand, hands against one of those walls as if it holds some secret; as if it is speaking to them. Couples appear and disappear. There is some inventive partnering, the exception, somewhat oddly, is a fairly predictable male duet, but almost everything is fleeting and feels rushed. ‘Brief’ is definitely the word. Frustrating too. British ballet generally doesn’t use dramaturgs, but I can’t help thinking that one might have helped.

The lighting leaps around as well, forever changing from one part of the stage to another at the flick of a switch. That also gets tiresome, although a bigger problem is that it too often lights only the torso down of the dancers leaving one straining to see faces; to see just who we are actually watching.

Scottish composer Tom Harrold’s music adds to the mood but is typical of most contemporary ballet scores. While a perfectly suitable accompaniment for the dance, it quickly fades from the memory. By the end of the evening, I couldn’t recall a single note or phrase.

For some reason, the pointe shoes are ditched for the closing moments, which also sees a change of costume for Brandon Lawrence and Delia Mathews, the latter in a long black dress. There’s a hint of rain falling as the melancholy scale rises. And just when you feel it might get interesting, it ends.

Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman in A Brief NostalgiaPhoto Ty Singleton
Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman in A Brief Nostalgia
Photo Ty Singleton

There are no problems with clarity in Cathy Marston’s The Suit, danced by Ballet Black as the middle part of the evening. Based on South African author Can Themba’s short story of the same title, it’s a super piece of storytelling. It’s not quite as dark or as tense as some of Kenneth MacMillan’s ouevre but it’s a super psychological drama nonetheless. It’s easy to see why it won Best Classical Choreography at the 2018 National Dance Awards, with José Alves picking up Outstanding Male Classical Performance for his portrayal of Philemon.

Here it was Sayaka Ichikawa who really took the eye in a classy performance as Matilda, Philemon’s wife, who he catches in bed with Mthuthuzeli November’s Simon, and who he subsequently degrades and humiliates to the point where she feels there is only one way out. Alves also impressed as he teaches his wife a long lesson for her infidelity, and whose icy cold feelings only melt when it is too late.

The rest of the company were on top form too whether acting as the townsfolk of Sophiatown, reflections in mirrors or a sort of Greek chorus that echoes the feelings of the main couple. It got a deservedly excellent reception from an audience most of whom I suspect were seeing Ballet Black for the first time.

José Alvez, here with Cira Robinson, in Cathy Marston’s The SuitPhoto Bill Cooper
José Alvez, here with Cira Robinson, in Cathy Marston’s The Suit
Photo Bill Cooper

But if there was a favourite, it has to be Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs, set to the songs of Ol’ Blue Eyes: seven pas de deux of different flavours with a mid-ballet interlude and finale when all the couples dance together in ‘My Way’. The choreography combines inventive use of the waltz, foxtrot, tango and cha-cha, with dashes of classical ballet technique. It was outstandingly danced throughout.

You could probably spot the couples at any big dance gathering. Momoko Hirata and César Morales were lyrical and tender in the opening ‘Softly as I Leave You’, a dance that includes the woman flipping over the back of the man, a regular motif throughout the ballet; not easy in their Oscar de la Renta gowns.

Samara Downs and Tom Rogers were all smart sharp, staccato steps and fan kicks in the tango parody that is ‘Strangers in the Night’. Céline Gittens and Yasuo Atsuji were fabulous as the appropriately drunken, stumbling couple in the ‘One For My Baby (and One More For The Road)’; a dance of much sexy grappling and grasping.

Yijing Zhang and the well-padded Tzu-chao Chou were a delight in ‘Something Stupid’, getting the comic mistiming of the clumsy and inexperienced lovers just right. Eilis Small and Brandon Lawrence really did go ‘All the Way’ in a totally contrasting dance of languid, dreamy long lines and extensions. There was more fun from Miki Mitzutani and Kit Holder in the flouncy Latin pastiche ‘Forget Domani’ before Delia Mathews and Tyrone Singleton bickered in ‘That’s Life’.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s autumn mixed bill continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome to September 21. Visit for details and tickets.
It can then be seen at Sadler’s Wells on October 29 & 30.