BWW Review: ASHTON DOUBLE BILL, Birmingham Royal Ballet

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shakespeare season opened with Frederick Ashton's The Dream, originally choreographed to celebrate the 250th anniversary of The Bard's birth, and now restaged to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. The bill is completed by A Month in the Country, an Ashtonian adaptation of Ivan Turgenev's 1855 play, and widely regarded as one of the choreographer's masterpieces.

The Dream draws us into a perfectly-imagined Victorian fairy world, complete with a picture book stage of a misty woodland glade, designed by Peter Farm. In this Shakespearean adaptation, Ashton cleverly condenses the story to focus on the quarrel between Titania and Oberon, and their interaction with the mortal lovers Hermia, Lysander, Helena and Demetrius. The narrative is simply but beautifully told, with clear, informative mime (particularly from Puck). Although the two stories of fairies and mortals are played out simultaneously, Ashton makes it clear that the mortals cannot see the magical creatures all around them, who observe every move.

The Dream opens in a traditional, Victorian fashion, with fairies posing and dancing in a typical Romantic style, forming rings and clusters throughout the choreography. The Birmingham Royal Ballet corps impress as always with their lyricism, excellent timing and beautiful symmetry of movement. However, in true Ashton style, this ballet soon departs from tradition and becomes more daring and amusing - particularly when the four attendant fairies (Arancha Baselga, Maureya Lebowitz, Angela Paul and Ruth Brill) cheekily express their shock at Titania's infatuation with Bottom.

Bottom is a loveable and comical character, brilliantly danced by Jonathan Caguioa. He skips and trots around the stage in black pointe shoes, wonderfully reminiscent of a donkey's hooves, and displays excellent comic timing throughout. Caguioa is particularly endearing as a confused Bottom, now returned to human form, with dim recollections of having long ears, scratching his rear end on trees, and loving a fairy queen.

The quartet of mortal lovers add to the riotous fun of The Dream as they chase one another throughout the forest. Ashton's excellent pas de deux is full of inventive lifts which, rather than bringing the mismatched couples together, serve to emphasise their desire to pull apart and run away! Laura Purkiss is charming as the silly Helena, even when dumped unceremoniously on the floor by Demetrius (Jamie Bond).

Nao Sakuma shines as Titania, coping equally well with the structured, precise choreography and more comical moments of character. Her extended pas de deux with Joseph Caley (Oberon) is a moment of beauty; the audience can see Titania's resistance towards her King failing as she strikes a strong arabesque before melting into his arms. Joseph Caley is as ever a confident, assured partner, but as Oberon it is clear that he is also a fantastic actor, commanding the stage with a resourceful and devious presence.

Mathias Dingman who steals the show as the meddlesome Puck. Ashton's tricky choreography is unusually fast for a man, yet Dingman pulls off every moment with aplomb. His elevation is remarkable and his every mime is clear yet comical.

Following The Dream, Ashton's A Month in the Country is an entirely different proposition, with a much more sombre and melancholy mood. The country home of a Russian family is shaken by the arrival of a young tutor, Beliaev. The individual members of the household are shaken from their daily monotony; none more so than bored, restless housewife Natalia. Natalia, her ward Vera, and maid Katia all fall passionately in love with Beliaev, bringing to the surface tension, emotion and anger in this usually restrained family.

This Birmingham Royal Ballet production still uses the original set and costume designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman, depicting a wealthy country house in cream, gold and blue. The open French windows at the back of the set open on to one of the most beautiful and realistic skyscapes I have ever seen, lit by John B Read. However, as Beliaev arrives, the sky darkens, foreshadowing the trouble to come.

In order to stage A Month In The Country as a one act ballet, Ashton had to heavily condense what is a five act play into a series of solos and pas de deux which portray each character's changing state of mind and reaction to Beliaev. Therefore, actions which in the original play would have been merely a look or squeeze of the hand, become passionate gestures and soaring lifts; the focus is more upon the emotional response of the family rather than an over-arching narrative.

That being said, Delia Matthews is exquisitely expressive as Natalia. With the simple turn of head or small hand gesture, she conveys more than an entire monologue could. Matthews does full justice to Ashton's intricate choreography, from her with beautiful floating arms and pliant back to suggest Natalia's happiness and passion, to the dead weight of her upper body when the futility of her new love affair becomes apparent.

Karla Doorbar sparkles as Vera, expressing all of the youth and optimism of the young ward with her pure line and deft footwork. Her pas de deux with Beliaev (Iain Mackay) is especially poignant as he guides her gently in supported pirouettes rather like an elder brother, in contrast to the wild embraces between Natalia and Beliaev.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet Ashton Double Bill is a fitting testament to one of Britain's greatest choreographers, and shows the company tackling two contrasting subject matters with excellent technique, committed acting performances and a real sensitivity for the Ashtonian style.

Photo: Bill Cooper

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From This Author Emma Cann

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