Jonathan Gray sees Brandon Lawrence's final performance with Birmingham Royal Ballet
|Apollo | Interlinked | ‘Still Life' at the Penguin Café
|Birmingham Royal Ballet
|10 June 2023
Some years ago, Marguerite Porter, the former Royal Ballet principal, confided in me about a talented young dancer whom she was determined to get into The Royal Ballet School (RBS). Porter was director of Yorkshire Ballet Seminars at the time, and the boy who had so impressed her had recently attended a summer course there. Her words were echoed to me later by the distinguished teacher, the late Frank Freeman, who thought this youngster had tremendous potential.
Needless to say, that boy from Bradford very quickly gained entry into the RBS, participated in the Young Dancer of the Year competition, and, upon graduation in 2011, was offered a contract by David Bintley to join Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB). The young man was Brandon Lawrence, and one of my greatest pleasures as a dance critic over the years has been to see him develop into a remarkable artist. I remember the excitement of his thrilling debut as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake one autumn afternoon at Sadler's Wells, where every technical and interpretative challenge was met completely (Porter, full of pride, was there to see him dance the role too). Lawrence then went on to give superb performances in other leading roles, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet, among others, and I often travelled out of London specially to see him dance, which sometimes proved difficult as BRB was notoriously bad at issuing casting information in advance.
Tall, elegantly proportioned, with an open, handsome, expressive face, and possessed of a meticulous technique, Lawrence is a courteous partner to his ballerina, and, in essence, he is a true danseur noble. Never overtly flashy or vulgar in his execution of virtuoso steps, he dances choreography with a real sense of honesty. He became a principal dancer with BRB in 2019 and was nominated on four occasions for a National Dance Award – you would be hard-pressed today to find a young British male dancer equal to his talents. As an openly queer Black dancer, Lawrence has been prominent within the dance community for his support of the Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements, and in addition he has championed and encouraged the development of young dance students. You sense he is a man who not only cares about the future of his art form, but also the wider world around him.
I was sad to learn, earlier this year, that Lawrence was leaving BRB in June to join the Zürich Ballet, now under the direction of British choreographer Cathy Marston, and that the last triple bill of the 2022/23 season would also see his final performance with the company. It proved a bittersweet occasion, but at least BRB's loyal audience was able to see Lawrence, a favourite amongst them, in three leading roles during his farewell at Birmingham Hippodrome on 10th June.
In the opening work, George Balanchine's Apollo, Lawrence's mastery of the neo-classical form was superb, his dancing elegant, alive, refined, and yet infused with a wonderfully jazzy interplay with Stravinsky's music that highlighted the choreography's Art Deco styling. There was nobility, integrity and allure to Lawrence's performance, and, although he looks nothing like him, in this work Lawrence reminded me of the singer, actor and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte, which is perhaps the highest possible compliment I can pay him.
Lawrence created a leading role in Juliano Nunes' Interlinked last year, which is danced to soupy music by Luke Howard. Revived on this programme, the mixed cast – dressed almost identically in skirts and bodices (although the cut of the men's tops revealed their nipples) – could almost be dancing an evocation of a ballet blanc, swirling in patterns and occasionally taking up poses and positions made famous from Romantic Ballet prints. It isn't startlingly original choreography, but what was fascinating was how Nunes has turned it into a gender-neutral work, the women dancing exactly the same steps and movements as the men, and in the duets, men paired with men as well as women. In a pas de deux with almost no sexual connotations, Lawrence and Tzu-Chao Chou danced together beautifully, supporting, lifting, wafting, and balancing each other, their skirts floating about them like gossamer.
To close the evening was Bintley's ‘Still Life' at the Penguin Café, a popular work made as long ago as 1988 that explores climate change, the environment and the impending extinction of various species of animals, birds and insects. It was ahead of its time when it was created, yet I often feel Penguin Café far too “cutesy” for its own good, the antics, for example, of the Texas Kangaroo Rat and Humboldt's Hog-nosed Skunk Flea too saccharine to make strong points about ecological disaster. In the ballet Lawrence appeared as the Southern Cape Zebra, a quivering, undulating, almost hypnotic creature who dies when shot by a hunter. Surrounded by women dressed as vultures, the Zebra drops to the floor, his body slowly shuddering until he finally expires.
At the curtain calls at the end of the evening, Lawrence was greeted with an ovation from the audience, received bouquets presented by Chief Executive Officer Caroline Miller (BRB's director, Carlos Acosta, was unable to be present because he had COVID-19), and was showered with long-stemmed red roses by colleagues from the Hippodrome's boxes. It was a warm and happy farewell, danced to a full house. Birmingham's loss is definitely Zurich's gain, but I hope, for all of us who care about the future of the art of classical ballet, that the departure of the inspirational Lawrence will be an au revoir and not an adieu.
Jonathan Gray was editor of Dancing Times from 2008 to 2022.
He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. He was on the Curatorial Staff of the Theatre Museum, London, from 1989 to 2005, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet's productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times and The Guardian, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.