dream top

TO the eternal credit of Birmingham Royal Ballet there are no half measures when it comes to their innovative First Steps performances for children.

The eager youngsters were treated to the full 60 plus strong Royal Ballet Sinfonia under principal conductor Paul Murphy along with front line dancers in a cut down version of Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, beautifully devised by assistant director Marion Tait.

The short ballet, based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, dates from 1964 to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, this year it marks his the anniversary of his death.William Bracewell

The excellent storyteller Owen Young introduces a near full house to the language of ballet, speaking without words, with hosts of youngsters joining him in showing a host of emotions in silence – more or less – angry being a particular favourite. Even Stephen King might have been frightened at some of the faces!

William Bracewell as Oberon, here with Natasha Oughtred as Titania. Pictures: Bill Cooper.

Young then sets the scene in the Forest of Arden with first the appearance of the fairies and then Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairies, quarrelling about a foundling - a child given to the Queen that Oberon wanted as a servant.

The curtain opens, with audible ooohs from the young audience, as Peter Farmer’s woodland set is revealed and the 16 strong corps de ballet, the fairies, appear in delicate powder blue flowing costumes, pretty as a picture, and a dream in themselves for many a young girl in the audience in her pink tutu. This is what they wanted to see . . . and want to be – ballerinas.

Had this been a decade ago perhaps young girls in tutus would have been all the youngsters your would see, but times have changed and there were an appreciable number of boys in the audience – dance no longer a macho no no.

Billy Elliot, Sir Matthew Bourne, hip-hop, breakdancing, street dancing, Strictly, have all opened minds and changed attitudes – even Fred Astaire is cool again these days, with a resurgence of dance musicals.

Tait has sensibly simplified the story to concentrate on Oberon, Titania, Puck and Bottom – a name, incidentally, to delight any audience of youngsters.

Out go the humans and the Shakespearean romcom of Hermia and Lysander and Demetrius and Helena. Let’s be honest, love and marriage are about as interesting as choosing kitchen cabinets to young children so best dump the lovers.

Instead give the youngsters an amiable idiot turned into a donkey by a mischievous Puck, and a Queen then falling in love with him, and they are happy. It is all a bit silly and funny - and easy to portray and understand

Principal dancer Jenna Roberts is a lovely Titania with rising star William James CaguioaBracewell as the athletic Oberon making a splendidly regal duo The pair also danced the roles in Saturday’s full performance.

Meanwhile James Barton gives us a lively Puck, full of mischief and practical jokes, a role he also danced that evening, while Jonathan Caguioa, who danced the role on Press night, is a wonderful Bottom who appears perhaps slightly brighter as a donkey than he is as a human.

James Caguioa as Bottom, here dancing with Nao Sakuma as Titania

Bottom arrives with a splendidly eccentric bunch of rustics, Shakespeare's rude mechanicals, who vanish in fear after Puck turns him into a donkey.

 The performance is broken into short scenes with Young explaining what is going on between each section with the help of the characters answering his questions.

Thus we have the trick of magic juice dropped on the eyes of Titania so she would fall for the now donkey-headed Bottom. Then, after a dance between the pair, it is explained how Puck and Oberon will make everything right again with Titania and Bottom, back to a human again, waking up and believing they have merely had a strange dream.

No dance is long enough for any child to lose interest, no dance takes place without children being told what is happening and how it takes the story forward.

As well as the dance there is also some explanation of Mendelssohn’s music with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia showing the different emotions expressed in the score, from the anger of Oberon when he is denied the foundling, to the happy dance of Bottom as a donkey, including a musical Hee Haw, all led by conductor Paul Murphy . . . who Young assured us is very cool.

Plenty of little girls in their ballet class outfits were in their element but for the rest as an introduction to ballet, and indeed theatre itself, it is an innovative venture by BRB and has enough interest to make a child think not only theatre is OK but there might even be something in this ballet lark.

Making ballet accessible to children aged three to seven is not the easiest of tasks but Marion Tait has managed it splendidly, building on last year’s A child’s Swan Lake. A sublime dancer herself in her prime, Tait is now encouraging and teaching the current generation and with First Steps could well be inspiring the stars of the next generation.

Roger Clarke




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