Dance Review






Spring Dance at London Coliseum

Presented by Askonas Holt, Raymond Gubbay and Sadler’s Wells.


Birmingham Royal Ballet

Pomp and Circumstances

Serenade – Enigma Variations – ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café

 Conductor: Phillip Ellis

London Coliseum

14 & 15 April 2009








A review by Barry Grantham for EXTRA! EXTRA!


Before I fall over myself with praise for ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café let me dispose of two [in my view) infinitely lesser creations.

Choreography: George Balanchine.  Music: Tchaikovsky   Costumes: Karinska  Lighting: Peter Teigen.

When the curtain went up on the beautifully lit Coliseum stage, on eighteen equally beautiful dancers, in the most beautiful and danceable costumes, I made a sharp anticipatory gasp of breath, held until released by a perfectly synchronized développé a la seconde revealing the hidden colours of the diaphanous skirts. (Bravo, the dyeing dept. for the subtlety of the shading).

The ballet continues – most pleasant on the eye – and on the ear Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, but one realises that there is something distinctly peculiar about the choreography  A programme note by Noël Goodwin is helpful in reminding one that this is an early work, when Balanchine was working in America with amateur dancers.   The dancers hold their arms in an almost childish 5th position en bas and suddenly and deliberately turn out their feet to 1st; thus stating boldly “Now, we are going to do some Ballet,”   Throughout, there are references to Petipa, to the Romantic Ballet of Taglioni, and to contemporary choreographers. Whom?  If we did not know it to be a very early ballet we might think Balanchine was parodying himself.  Then a man and two girls demonstrate all possible combinations of ‘hands held interweaving’.  “See, there’s one you never thought of!” Balanchine seems to be saying.

These secret messages don’t stop it being entertaining and frequently very beautiful.  The dancers of the Birmingham Ballet are quite splendid, combing clarity of discipline with a youthful freedom of expression. As I said, the lighting is exemplary, as in the final moments when the dancer is carried aloft to the wings like the figurehead of a galleon.
Enigma Variations
Choreography: Frederick Ashton. Music: Edward Elgar. Design: Julia Trevelyan Oman. Lighting: Mark Jonathan.

Let me say, I don’t like this ballet – didn’t like it when I first saw it and I don’t like it now. My distaste is so great that it is hard to offer a fair criticism. Don’t tell anyone what I am about to say – I wouldn’t like to be lynched by supporters in a dark alley  - remember the Ashton/Macmillan fracas (no need to ask on which side I was ) but - I think Frederick Ashton grossly overrated, and this ballet – it’s Beatrix Potter without the masks!  The same ‘oh so funny, ha, ha, steps and characterization – an old man with the ear-trumpet to make you wince.   Yes, children do play ring-a-roses, but can’t you think of anything else? I really mustn’t go on. But those hateful Edwardian costumes, only slightly less inhibiting than the Beatrix Potter ones, and the 1850 set – almost identical to an early design for Marguerite’s garden in Gounod’s Faust I was looking at a few days ago.   But the dancing can’t be faulted with special praise for Carol-Anne Millar as Dora Penny and Victoria Marr as Mrs Elgar.  

‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café
Choreography: David Bintley.  Music: Simon Jeffes. Design: Hayden Griffin Lighting: John B Read.

It is hard to think that this ballet has been around for twenty years – still fresh and meaningful as the year it was created, and it is alarming to note that its message on the environment, is as unheeded by politicians now as it was all those years ago. I have found among my old VHF videos an interview of David Bintley with Melvyn Bragg from about that time; very earnest and sincere. Glad he has become director of the Birmingham Ballet.

In the present production by the Birmingham Ballet a major achievement is the dancers’ ability to free themselves from the balletic idiom and embrace a style inspired by cabaret, 1930’s film, African tribal movement, and English country dance. To the wonderful inventive choreography, with its true comic flare, are added the joyful music of Simon Jeffes and the superlative costumes by Haden Griffin and his projected backcloths – abstract, surrealist, or primitive. One shows an African landscape of stunted thorn-trees (?) that seems to embody the very spirit of southern Africa. (I’m sure Mma Ramotswe of The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency would be thoroughly at home).

The ballet starts with a dance of the penguins.(Soloist: Laura Purkiss)  Why are they carrying trays of cocktail drinks? Well, they are waiters, aren’t they? They already have the appropriate costume.  Why are some of the guests human and others, animal? Because there is no apartheid at the Penguin Café.   Don’t ask why one member of the team of Morris dancers’ is a Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea (Carol-Anne Millar), or why the oh-so-glamorous Ginger Rogers has grown the head of a Utah Longhorn Ram. (Angela Paul with Robert Parker) The world is full of joy and beauty; the most magnificent creature of all is the Southern Cape Zebra (Chi Cao) Yes, the costumes and dances are every bit as evocative as the animal names. The Zebra is killed and the masterly choreography shows, that the elegant zebra-clad models see and feel nothing. Why does the Brazilian Woolly Monkey (Alexander Campbell) lead the joyous grand finale?  Well, it’s not the finale, but the last before the acid rain falls.

Although David Bintley has a love for the animals; it must be love, how else could he have created the Texan Kangaroo Rat? (Christopher Larson) he does not exclude the plight of the human dispossessed. . A family with father, mother, and white-faced clown child with echoes of Blue period Picasso, also face extinction. (Dominic Antonucci, Victoria Marr & Georgia Smart)  

David Bintley is an optimist; a final projection (in both senses) shows Noah’s Arc into which the animals have sought sanctuary.  God pray Mr Bintley’s faith is not unfounded. 


Box Office: 0871 911 0200

Tuesday and Wednesday 14th and 15th April at 7.30pm

London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES    

 Tickets; £15 - £60



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