Guest author Matthew Paluch sees the Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill ‘Into the Music': Kylián's Forgotten Land; Runacre-Temple's Hotel; Scholz's The Seventh Symphony
|Title||Into the Music|
|Company||The Birmingham Royal Ballet|
|Venue||Sadler's Wells, London|
|Date||2 November 2022|
1981, 1991, 2022.
Birmingham Royal Ballet does retro and zeitgeist in their “most ambitious triple bill to date” – I'm sure David Bintley loves that slogan!
The title for the bill Into the Music, got me pondering. Aren't we always? Even when choreography is done in silence aren't we aware of rhythm and dynamic? Perhaps even more so as one of the senses has been taken out of play…
Anyways – let's get into the ambitious bill (sorry David!).
Considering how important Jiří Kylián is in Dutch and contemporary dance, the UK hasn't seen much of his body of work. Forgotten Land (1981) is considered an important piece, taking inspiration from Edvard Munch.
First and foremost, the Benjamin Britten score Sinfonia da Requiem Op. 20 makes the ballet: mega drama – mega brass – mega impact. And Kylián uses the score well. He offers drama throughout, but no melo. It feels sophisticated, understated yet powerful.
And the same could be said for the dancing. It suits BRB well. They can use their classical technical finesse and augment it through the weighted, angst-ridden movement. The three main couples all have extended pas de deux. Kylián focuses on maturity, power, and love.
Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton are majestic as the black couple. Gittens confirms her presence in this first work with authority: she's a brilliant dancer with a (verging on) faultless technique and elegant expression. Their pas has a motif we see often: ‘spin-pull' or ‘swing-pull'. It seems reductive in those simple descriptive terms, but in movement it's very effective. Bound energy into released suspension that works well visually with two opposing bodies.
The red couple have a different dynamic feel: energised, articulate and constantly zipping through space. Both are brilliant, but Mathias Dingman really stands out. All (?!) dancers are coordinated, but some more so than others, and that something extra tends to translate into an ease of movement, seamless transitions, and never seemingly flustered even when moving at high speed.
The white couple, including a considered Brandon Lawrence, changed the mood somewhat – things lightened, visually and emotionally. But I think by this point I was starting to feel a little Kylián/Munch-ed out to fully appreciate the slight shift. It's a good work though, skilled in structure and content. It encapsulates that 80s moment in dance when actual dancing was featured. And I'm into that. The programme notes told of Kylián's intention and inclusion of the ocean throughout the work… I didn't get that, literally or metaphorically. Munch-esque angst big time. Ocean? No.
And onto another commission for Morgann Runacre-Temple who is seemingly everywhere all at once! Her latest work Hotel with composer Mikael Karlsson explores “a surreal journey into the secrets and lies that live behind closed doors”. Surreal? Definitely. Exploration? Less so.
The work opens without any foreplay. There's a very Wes Anderson-style visual environment, and suddenly we're observing some extremely tetchy, sinister hotel staff and we don't really know why. All stories have to start somewhere, but good storytelling tends to feel a little less clunky.
We aren't watching in just the conventional sense: the work includes the use of film, both live and recorded, projected onto the set. This is meant to be the exploration aspect – a delve into the behind-the-scenes of hotel life. For the first half of the work it felt more like banal CCTV, verging on voyeurism. I couldn't work out the benefit of the inclusion of the film element, it just felt gimmicky and more of a hindrance than help focus-wise.
The hotel guests arrived, two couples and a lone man, and we didn't really learn anything about them as they checked in. The hotel staff continued their sinister take on hospitality, culminating in poisoning the clientele in a dining room sitting. Bellboys brought cameras onto the stage to capture this unfolding in the moment. We saw a chef chop up potatoes, the evil staff add poison to green slop, and the clientele devours the dangerous menu, all intimately. Both in real-life action and on live film. With two modes in play, I didn't really know where to look, but as the film projection was bigger I mostly focused there.
Runacre-Temple explained in the programme how the use of film allows for a different experience and subsequent altered access to dance observation – which I don't dispute – but if the inclusion means we don't watch the live stage action itself at all what's actually happening? Have we left the theatre environment completely and gone to the cinema? Is that the intention behind the multimedia inclusion?!
Notice how I haven't even mentioned anything about dance yet…
Then things got even more surreal. With the arrival of an emu of sorts: a headless dancer who used their arm as a type of emu head. The emu entered a hotel room to disturb one of the couples from their poison-inflicted sleep.
Next followed a dream sequence where things started to fall into place. The score brought the piano to the forefront emphasising the mystical narrative development, and (finally) the inclusion of film started to make sense as a choreographic tool. As the hotel guests entered the space on seemingly floating beds, the live camera was fixed on their faces causing an interesting play on speed and perspective. As they danced tender pas de deux the bellboy-cameramen followed them closely allowing the projected footage to show alternative perspectives of the dance to that experienced by the audience. The separate elements of live dance and the simultaneous filming of it didn't feel disconnected – they worked as one, offering a fuller visual experience to the observer. This made sense. Another successful moment saw the interplay of recorded film of the characters interacting with the dancers in real-time. This is both clever and impactful, and something we also saw recently in London in Alexander Whitley's Anti-Body.
Runacre-Temple also used size as a perspective tool. A camera captured the hand of the hotel manager and projected it in mammoth proportion onto one of the two set wall backdrops, and the cast interacted with it – either as a type of dance partner or an oppressive force. Another strong moment. This led to the end of the work where the hotel guests re-emerged from their rooms seemingly all having become emus. Do I know why? No. Do I care? Also no, I'm afraid.
As a dance piece I wasn't massively interested in the actual choreography (apart from the dream sequence and a dynamic Bellboy trio – watch out for Eric Pinto Cata, a committed, expressive young dancer). The overall value of the work felt overly focused on the physical so any leg that left the floor seemed to be whacked up to its maximum extension possibility. Was this the actual choreographic intention, or the way the dancers were interpreting it? Either way, it was problematic.
Runacre-Temple is a musical dance maker and has a skill for sensitive movement, but the balance of this within the work needs addressing. As discussed, the film element did work at times but elsewhere felt purposeless. Anyone working with film in dance needs to spend time with Hans van Manen's Live (1979). We aren't in new territory I'm afraid as this 43-year-old work is yet to be equalled regarding the use of live and recorded film on stage to enhance and deepen the dance and theatre experience. And as for the emus – answers on a postcard please.
Then to close, The Seventh Symphony by German choreographer Uwe Scholz, touted as a “gloriously musical interpretation” of Beethoven's vibrant Seventh Symphony.
If you're familiar with Glen Tetley's Voluntaries you'll feel very at home. There are major similarities both visually and beyond, but this is the happier, less serious relative. Interestingly Voluntaries was choreographed at the end of 1973 for Stuttgart Ballet, which was the same academic year that Scholz was admitted to John Cranko's Ballet School which is associated with the company. I feel confident in saying it made a lasting impression.
The Seventh Symphony is a big ballet in all senses: the size of the cast, the Beethoven score, and the length of the work. BRB danced it well… very. It's a leotard ballet and therefore it's hard to hide anything, but it was performed confidently by the whole cast, so bravo to all involved.
Scholz is the king of repetition. This of course has a lot to do with the structure of the score, and repetition is also a very important component of choreography. It allows the observer to really engage with the dance – to analyse and reanalyse as they go. Seeing something twice isn't a problem for me, but three times in the same sitting… overkill. Even if it's danced well.
The work is structured in four movements (-ish). Gittens and Lawrence lead the first. They're dazzling together. He takes such care with his dancing and nothing feels disposable. This in turn allows for movement with beautiful quality. Gittens is more in the moment which is also very exciting to watch. She made the odd gymnastic decision in action which I don't think benefited the choreography and, capable as she is, I crave more articulation in her footwork. Specifically in the metatarsals.
The second movement is the adagio moment. Not glacial, but more eked out. A caramel style dynamic. Dingman is back offering the same high level of work, and his partner Yaoqian Shang is a great choice for a leotard ballet. Her leg and footwork are articulated beyond belief. Sensuous even. Her upper body and projection is more successful in the Scholz than the Kylián, but still needs more ease in the shoulder placement and neckline.
The third and fourth movements lift again and see the arrival of Cesar Morales and Momoko Hirata. Morales has always been one of the most lyrical dancers on the scene and that idiosyncratic trait isn't going anywhere soon. And as for Hirata, I wish we'd seen more of her in this triple. She's a stunning dancer and the fact she's pint-sized and slight beyond belief seems to highlight the bigness of her dancing even more. She moves massively, always beyond the toe, projecting to the limit. I love her port de bras. She doesn't stay inside the box – it feels fresh and exploratory.
Can the same be said for the work and its content? I'm in two minds. There's something very old-fashioned about German modern ballet. I can't quite decide if that's a good or bad thing. I felt like I was time-travelling, and I don't think the sets and costumes helped. Though the obvious use of light in the design still spoke strongly. The tangerine hue specifically feeling vintagely potent.
The more you see a work, generally, the more you grow to appreciate it, but I'm unsure I'd ever feel the same about The Seventh Symphony as I do MacMillan's Concerto for example. There is movement language in Scholz's offering, and it's largely classical and innovative, but it doesn't seem to have the same depth or recognisability of the canons of his contemporaries. Perhaps I'm overthinking things. Perhaps I just need to see more Scholz. But if we don't seriously contemplate, we're potentially heading into dangerous territory. It's the difference between music and muzak, which can morph undetected at times. Is this highly skilled ‘ballak' I wonder…?
This is an ambitious bill. And it's a successful one. Major value for money and you leave the theatre thinking which is always a good thing. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by both Thomas Jung and Koen Kessels was in fine form, and the company looked stronger than it has for a while. There was an obvious confidence on stage. I hope it's genuine and not just good acting. In fact, I truly hope that Birmingham Royal Ballet is a happy place under the direction of Carlos Acosta, because when artists are empowered, they can go to amazing places.