tempest top

BIRMINGHAM Royal Ballet end their Shakespeare Season, marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death with a world premiere of what is, remarkably, the very first full length ballet of The Tempest, choreographed by BRB director David Bintley,  with music by Sally Beamish and a design from War Horse’s Rae Smith.

A NEW full length classical ballet is a theatrical event, an exciting new chapter in an age old art form.

The likes of Swan Lake, a seasonal appearance of The Nutcracker, along with Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet might be the mainstays and breadwinners of most ballet companies and a delight for audiences.

But ballet has to also evolve if it is not to stagnate – audiences, and dancers, might love the familiar favourites but even the most ardent fan would eventually tire of the same old half dozen top of the ballet pops.

Not that ballet is standing still. There are plenty of new short pieces and one act ballets appearing, as many and varied as the choreographers creating them, but full length ballets are a different proposition, with cost alone, around £700,000 in this case, a barrier in itself.

Full length ballet also need a narrative strong enough to need two acts in the telling all held in place by a magical score and David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and one of the country’s most accomplished and inventive choreographers, has found both for his latest ballet, The Tempest.

The ballet is the final piece in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shakespeare season, marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, and you could hardly do better than have Shakespeare proBintley and Domvide the story, while Bintley has commissioned a new score from celebrated British composer Sally Beamish.

It is a score, word has it, that has had an appreciative nod and the seal of approval from the excellent Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Excitement and apprehension might be growing as opening night approaches but few ballets can have had the gestation period of Bintley’s Tempest – a mere 34 years, which is before most of the cast were born!

David Bintley, right, polishing the choreography with Ballet Master Dominic Antonucci, who is taking on the role of baddy Antonio. Pictures: Andrew Ross

It was 1982 when Bintley, then a young dancer with a growing reputation as a choreographer at the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, forerunner of BRB, heard Jean Sibelius’s incidental music written for a 1926 production of The Tempest at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen.

He used the overture, along with other Sibelius scores, in his first full length ballet The Swan of Tuonela. He said: “Later I heard a recording of the complete music and thought it would make a ballet. Unfortunately, my excitement was tempered by my feeling that this music, excellent though it was, was not the score for me to make ‘my’ Tempest, and the idea was relegated to the back burner.”

And there it stayed until Bintley heard Beamish on Radio 3’s Composer of the week in 2012 and the wait was over. He had found his composer and she created his music.

The Tempest was written around 1610-11 and is thought by many to not only be Shakespeare’s last play but by the 20th century was being regarded as his greatest work, full of political intrigue, allegories and all manner of hidden meanings which can be found hidden in the text if you look hard enough.

Bintley has shunned all that and gone back to the original simple story as written, Shakespeare’s tale of magician Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, usurped by his brother Antonio and dodgy King of Naples Alonso, and marooned on an island with his daughter Miranda.

Prospero conjures up a storm – the eponymous Tempest – to lure Antonio and Alonso to the island were justice prevails, along with a love story as Miranda and Antonio's son Ferdinand fall for each other – all ending happily ever after.

A storm, mysterious island, magic, fairies, a wicked sprite in Ariel, Caliban, the deformed villain, good and bad noblemen and a Romeo and Juliet style love story to boot – what more could a ballet ajennask for?

Which is a valid question. The Tempest has apparently generated more music than any other Shakespeare play with everything from songs and choral works to incidental music for productions of the play, orchestral works, a couple of musicals and at least 46 operas at the last count.

But as for ballets? A one-act ballet based on Sibelius’s incidental music and its 36 parts was performed in New York in 2013 while an even shorter piece was choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s 1873 fantasy overture.

In rehearsal: Principal Jenna Roberts who will dance the role of Miranda.

So this will be the first full length ballet of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies and attending one of the rehearsals with Bintley in September, the cast and Bintley were down to fine tuning with subtle details in blocking and positioning and even hand positions being determined to create not just a ballet but a series of  moving pictures on stage.

The Tempest will have three casts of the main characters of Ariel, Caliban, Ferdinand and Miranda and two of the rest of the principals. Not that rest is a word that will be heard often. This is a big cast and utilises 21 men out of a pool of 24.

For Principal dancer Joseph Caley the role of Ferdinand will bring an uplifting experience – flying into a mid-air ballet. This is not a sedate a float across the stage, it involves aerial choreography. He said: “Normally with wire work you move between the wires but there are these strange fish characters on stage and the guys grab on to me and they start to move me around, and rock me. They have put bungee cord in there to give it a buoyancy effect and I am tumbling. I am supposed to be drowning.”

And drowning is not the only problem. The wire work was down at the BRB warehouse in Minworth and Caley said: “We haven’t done it since last season and the next time will be production week, but it will be all right.”

That confidence extends to Principal Iain MacKay, who points to the strength of the company and its record of new Bintley ballets such as Beauty and the Beast or the recent Cinderella and The Prince of the Pagodas. He said: “We have one of Britain’s best choreographers as director and we do huge productions as you will see with The Tempest, and we do the huge classics, but we are ncast of tempestot like the Royal Ballet, there are not 100 of us, there are 60, so there are opportunities and David brings through young, talented dancers so there are opportunities. It builds a strong foundation. I have been here 17 years and I got my first principal role when I was 20”.

The cast working out positioning as rehearsals progress.

Australian Principal Jenna Roberts, seen dancing as Juliet with MacKay’s Romeo in a stunning pas de deux earlier this year, will be dancing Miranda. She said: “The play is very complicated and when you are a main character you definitely have to have an idea of what your main character is and what it entails and what they feel.

“That’s my way of doing it. I like to read about it, watch the play, watch the movies.”

When Bintley first talked to her about the role he asked her how she saw Miranda and what she was like, added a little direction and from that the character evolved, with Caley adding that Bintley gives “little snippets” of director as the character grows through rehearsals to appear as the finished article on opening night.

With a set and costumes by War Horse designer Rae Smith, The Tempest, a co-production with Houston Ballet Foundation in Texas opens with a world premiere at Birmingham Hippodrome on 1 October running to 8 October.

Roger Clarke

09-16

It moves then to Sadler's Wells 020 7863 8000 13-15 October, Sunderland Empire 0844 871 3022, 20-22 October, and Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 01752 267222 27-29 October.

It will then make its USA debut at Houston Ballet on 25 may, 2017.

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