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Three short works-Serenade/Enigma Variations/Still Life at the Penguin Cafe review at Birmingham Hippodrome

A deeply satisfying programme opened with Balanchine’s Serenade, set to Tchaikovsky, an exercise in poise, balance and control. The BRB dancers were precise without pedantry, something which can turn this exquisite piece into a worryingly stressed event.

I don’t think tight synchronisation will ever, finally, be a company strength. But this is carping. The dancers looked happy enough and floated gracefully in pastel tulle through Balanchine’s lovely ballet, which was devoid of ‘motivation’ and about nothing at all. But then, wasn’t Les Sylphide formed on an identical premise? The last moments, when an abandoned girl was carried into a new day, was superb.

As for Ashton’s Enigma Variations, which opened the second part of the evening, the word is enchantment, with reservations. Elgar and friends meet on the lawn at his Worcestershire house. Old memories pass through the composer’s mind and trusted friends gather under falling leaves. Julia Trevelyan Oman’s magnificent set evoked autumnal melancholy in a mist-hung park. It was a treat in its own right.

Every twirl, every spin, every forceful dynamic was in place. But somehow there was an absence of atmosphere. The dancers skimmed around the stage, or kissed their girls in hammocks while Jonathan Payn’s Elgar looked out across the stalls with strained intensity, giving the part everything he had.

But somehow, it all became everything-is-beautiful-at-the-ballet. There was, I felt, a need here to express desperation and a yearning for an unattainable goal.

Fleetingly, Valentin Olovyannikov found it, in a beautifully moving and well-nigh perfect performance as A. J. Jaegar, Elgar’s soul buddy. But Olovyannikov comes from a culture which nurtured both Pushkin and Chekhov. He is only as yet a First Artist dancing a testing role. But he acquitted himself honourably.

Bintley’s Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is a profound parable of a world destroying itself and it has even more relevance today than it had when I first reviewed it in its 1996 premiere. At that time, it seemed that our planet was indestructible along with our arrogance. Times have changed and now this wonderfully moving ballet with its threatened species (caught here with great emotional intensity by the company) has a new resonance. The costumes, the stylish dancing, the vibrant music often bouncing along in a carnivalistic mood, were all ravishing but Bintley, with amazing inspiration, has left a sense of foreboding amidst the high jinks.

Production Information

Birmingham Hippodrome, March 4-7, then touring until April 18

Birmingham Royal Ballet
George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton, David Bintley
Cast includes
Robert Parker, Chi Cao, Elisha Willis, Matthew Lawrence, Victoria Marr, Alexander Campbell, Jonathan Payn
Running time
2hrs 45mins

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