Ethereal, mesmerising, faultless: MacMillan’s Concerto

Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome
September 27, 2017

Phil Preece

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s 2017 autumn season opened this week with a superb programme brilliantly showcasing both the richness of this company’s 26-year heritage and its diversity with a triple bill of works drawn from their extensive repertoire created during that time.

The evening’s first offering, Kenneth Macmillan’s Concerto is a master-class in purity of music, colour and movement. Set to Shostakovitch’s second Piano Concerto, Macmillan creates a ballet of pure classicism which would be austere in its purity if not were not so rich in technique. Here a range of dancers clad simply in yellow, orange and red perform a series of increasingly testing, utterly controlled dance against a palely wash-lit background to create an abstract homage to classical technique in solo work, pas de deux and combinations up to full cast. Ethereal, mesmerising and technically faultless this apparently effortless ensemble performance allowed the company to demonstrate without question the superbly high level of achievement BRB has acquired since its birth.

Tyrone Singleton and Jenna Roberts in ConcertoPhoto Andy Ross
Tyrone Singleton and Jenna Roberts in Concerto
Photo Andy Ross

The evening’s second offering is BRB director David Bintley’s own 1988 ‘Still Life’ At The Penguin Café, which explores the very modern whole-earth crisis of species extinction. Starting from the celebratory, even comic, the balletic depictions of the dwindling and final end of species as varied as The Great Auk, Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea and the Southern Cape Zebra, all in recent history, move from comedy to tragedy as the completeness of the loss meant by the term extinction is brought home. If ‘Still Life’ seems to have got better over the years since its creation it also chillingly asks the question if this is not perhaps Bintley’s most important work, seeming now even more urgently prescient than when it was first made.

Birmingham Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan's Elite SyncopationsPhoto Andy Ross
Birmingham Royal Ballet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations
Photo Andy Ross

It’s back to MacMillan for the evening’s crown: Elite Syncopations set to the ragtime music of Scott Joplin and others. Notable for its on-stage New Orleans-style jazz band, it depicts a group of dancers rehearsing who gradually and with great verve and humour begin trying to out-dance each other, becoming increasingly athletic, inventive and finally risk-taking in the process. Elite is also notable also for Ian Spurling’s colourfully exuberant costumes which still look ahead of anything remotely contemporary. The ballet is one of the company’s most sure-fire hits, a regular crowd pleaser, and like ‘Last Stop’ filled with unexpected humour in an art form which may sometimes to outsiders seem to take itself too seriously. Its 38 minutes is over all too soon.

A marvellously celebratory programme showcasing not only the richness of BRB’s back catalogue but also – again – the impressively high standard of its dancers, clearly demonstrating this company to be truly world class.

This Penguin Café mixed programme runs at Birmingham Hippodrome to Saturday September 30, then tours. Visit for venues and dates for this, the forthcoming Aladdin, and more.