sun king

Max Maslen as Le Roi Soleil, The Sun King, having emerged from the glowing sun, the bringer of dawn

Fire & Fury

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome


David Bintley’s take on a 17th century French court performance is a spectacle as dramatic as you are likely to get on a modern ballet stage, with a finale which is simply stunning.

The style of dance is unfamiliar, no one has memories stretching back that far, which makes it all the more compelling to watch for an audience.

Bintley, the BRB’s director, based his ballet on Le Ballet de la Nuit, dating back to 1653, and studied not only the content but also the style of dance in the court of Louis XIV, which brings some authenticity to the piece.

The ballet of the night was notable not only because it was the first Ballet de Cour to be published in complete form, and copies still exist, but also because it marked the debut of the 14-year-old Louis XIV, the boy king. Louis was reputedly an accomplished dancer, dancing 80 roles in 40 ballets, which puts him on a par with a professional dancer.

The ballet was a major production, in four parts, and lasting 13 hours . . . luckily Bintley has cut that down to 38 minutes. We open to a circle of blazing torches as Tyrone Singleton appears as Le Nuit, precise, deliberate and elegant in a section that would have lasted from six to nine in the evening.

The second watch takes us to midnight with the pleasures of the evening with Mesdames – all men incidentally, James Barton, Tzu-Chao Chou, Aitor Galende and Gus Payne - and introduces us to Le Roi, the king, danced by Max Maslen while as a moon appears in the sky, Yijing Zhang arrives as Selene, La Lune, to dance with the king.

king and moon

Max Maslen as Le Roi with Yijing Zhang as Selene, La Lune in their delicate, slow pas de deux demanding precision and balance

Third watch brings the small hours, the hours when the night can bring its own terrors such as demons, August Generalli, Miles Gilliver, Kit Holder and Lachlan Monaghan, Magiciennes James Barton and Tzu-Chao Chou again with Aitor Galende and Gus Paune reappearing as Loups-garous, werewolves, with Tyrone Singleton, in shiny red, strutting his stuff as Le Diable.

Finally, we head to the dawn with Singleton now Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV’s chief minister, acting as MC as a huge sun slowly grows brighter at the rear of the stage finally opening to reveal Maslen as The Sun King, with a halo of golden rays and a glittering golden costume, a symbol of power and authority.

Stephen Montague’s music is dramatic with obvious baroque overtones while Katrina Lindsay’s design is simple and rich leading up to the golden, glittering finale, complimented by Peter Mumford’s lighting which ranges from the burning torches to the explosion of light from the sun.

Cleverly the rear of the stage is in darkness to allow characters to appear and disappear into the gloom.

Away from the excitement of its world premiere in 2015, more is taken in on a second viewing realising a clever and dramatic piece of work with more subtlety and complexity than seen on a first encounter. Music, by the ever-reliable Royal Ballet Sinfonia, was conducted by Jonathan Lo, one of the emerging band of new conductors who first came to BRB in 2015 as a BBC Performing Arts Fellow and is now a regular guest conductor.

The second piece, Ignite, is a world premier of this BRB and Dutch National Opera and Ballet co-production which is described as a choreographic unfolding of Turner’s painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, dating from 1835.

You could have guessed fire by the red and orange robes but you needed to be told that there was a link to the painting, but then again, that is what the programme and cast list are there for, to set the scene.

sky and river

Mathias Dingman as Sky and Delia Mathews as River

With the ensemble darting about as flickers of flame it is up to Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence as Fire and Max Maslen, Miki Mizutani and Tzu-Chao Chou as Ignition to give structure and drama to the flames.

And as the reds and oranges are discarded to leave us with grey ash there is a serenity, even hope from Mathias Dingman as Sky and Delia Mathews as River. The pair produce a delightful, slow and emotive pas de deux, another side to Dingman, who was the fun Colas last week, while Mathews is always an exquisite dancer and shows just why she was promoted to Principal last summer.

Juanjo Arqués’ choreography captured the life and spirit of flames and the quiet stillness of the dying embers and charred remains while Kate Whitley’s score was at times symphonic, sometimes lyrical, sometimes sombre, always interesting with a whole range of moods you might feel watching a building you knew consumed by flames.

The reals star though as Tatyana van Walsum’s design using 10 mirrored panels which started and ended as the back wall but rose angled above the stage so that the red and orange dance below was carried high into the sky, as were the flames in Turner’s painting. As the flames die Bert Dalhuysen’s lighting changes colours to the greys of ash and the grey blue of the river, reflected from the mirrored sky.

The result is a vivid piece of interpretation of an event captured in a painting, impressionism in dance, To 06-10-18

Roger Clarke


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