Youngsters dance up a storm

Tree spirit: Japanese dancer Diasuke Miura from Tokyo is wonderfully pliant as Caliban

The Tempest

Ballet Cymru

The Roses Theatre, Tewkesbury

 ****

BALLET Cymru, or Ballet Wales, is a vital company of accomplished young dancers,  based in Newport, Gwent. They tour to not just Wales, but also England.

Their present productions of Shakespeare's The Tempest, to rarely-heard music by the Finnish composer Sibelius, and two stories by Roald Dahl (Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs) using brilliantly pastiched music by Paul Patterson, take them far afield: from   Sadler's Wells to Stourbridge (1 Dec), Lincs to Lancs, Hexham (Northumberland) to Ilfracombe in Devon. 

They excel in small and medium venues; but can also excel on a large stage. Hinging on just ten or so dancers and a dedicated small support team, this is a company that has already stormed the heights. The vast amount of preparation is obvious from their stagings; and it has constantly to reinvent its team.

Nursed and nurtured by their choreographer and the company's founder, the Royal Ballet School-trained (and Northern Ballet veteran) Darius James, these youthful performers, aged, roughly, 18 to 25, deliver a quality of dance that is unquestionably of national standards. They can mime and they can act. They have mastered traditional ballet: a good deal is danced on point. But the productions diverge from the stuffy, predictable or hackneyed. The dance is mature, elegant, sophisticated, refreshing; and dazzlingly alive. A few minutes with Ballet Cymru lifts the spirits.   

Their danced productions of Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, even a splendidly crafted Hamlet, have brought the company to a high pitch. Under Milk Wood was a peak. Their Romeo was astounding: beautifully shaped and crafted. The current Tempest is a case in point. What is all the more impressive, apart from the sheer inventiveness and sensitivity of James's choreography, plus the finesse – and touching innocence - of the dancing, is the amount of Shakespeare's last, or near-last, play James has managed to preserve.

We get the storm scene – and what an outburst, with the (here, Finnish) elements raging and dancers drowning behind cloudy gauze. James blocks his team beautifully – whether here, or in the Caliban-Stephano-Trinculo scenes, or in the opening stages of his Red Riding Hood and Little Pigs exposés. 

Emily Pimm Edwards as Prospero's daughter Miranda

And they respond. All the dancers – Daisuke Miura's wonderfully pliant Caliban not least - seem capable of adopting the most elastic of poses. Ballet Cymru easily invites comparison with David Bintley's Birmingham Royal Ballet; its young executants are that good. They have acquired their trade, and they cherish it. Prospero is the handsomely authoritative Sam Bishop, who has the stature and the inventiveness to match the Bard's semi self-portrait.

As with the Dahl double bill, where Bishop is a superb narrator, he dances less than he might: in the air, he looks like the (all too curtailed) final scene of Billy Elliot. He has grace, poise, dignity and charm: the last he successfully quashes in characterisng Prospero, who can famously verge on a curmudgeon; but his delight at the designed coming-together of Ferdinand and the delectable, parasol-wielding Miranda is patent not just from his face, but from his body language. Bishop strikes me as a performer of considerable versatility, a snip for any company. And that will grow and blossom further. 

The joy of this production was newcomer Lydia Arnoux, an Elmhurst School of Dance graduate who has already made appearances for Birmingham Royal Ballet. Her Ariel was like watching the very antithesis of Simon Russell Beale's moody RSC sprite, podgily pitted against Alec McCowen's Prospero. Arnoux has the most scintillating gestures: not just arms and fingers, but (to wonderful effect) her neck is brought into play.

Like the sensational (boy) Puck in Ballet Cymru's Dream (soon to be revived), she has the essential range: thus Ariel is buoyant, light as gossamer, scudding as if airborne; cocky, subdued, and (before his long-delayed release) humbled, hangdog; he can be controlling, omnipresent, virulent; tender, delicate, somniferous; all the more impressive, as Arnoux is actually marginally chunky.

That is part of the charm. The only weakness, possibly, was a tendency to recycle certain gestures, like a kind of ritual. Yet that is perhaps the whole point. She is a magical performer already (worth catching, too, as Dahl's chief Little Pig). What role, one wonders, might she assay next?  

Four (or sometimes two) white sprites cavort about, occasionally but always beefing up the action. These might usefully be sharpened up a bit: there was a slight indeterminacy about their role (although they are meant to be, by definition, elusive; and their feeding off one another yielded some subtle pas-de-deux, -trois etc.)

What did work rather well was the Masque (yes, we got even that: perhaps we owe it to Sibelius.) Three divine performers – the usual suspects. From their colours we could sort of work out who was who (Ceres being yellow, perhaps). The effect was beguiling without being kitsch: a fine achievement.

Diasuke Miura's Caliban is a tortured soul held as a slave

Jemima Beatty, Welsh-born and multilingual, was rather a joy as Trinculo. Armed with a lovely repertoire of slinky movements (though likewise, one or two were overused), she brightens up the show no end. The gabardine moment perhaps needs slight reworking, or even more comic bizarreness in the staging.

Mandev Sokhi, from Cheshire, and also Ballet Cymru's Education Officer overseeing its outreach programme, proved his versatility by doubling Gonzalo with Stephano, and contrasting his roles artfully. It involved some neat quick-changes – the former attractively attired in claret robes, Stephano cavorting in black tail coat and a kind of comic white underwear. Gonzalo, one felt, deserved space to prate a bit more. Parisian Nicolas Capelle's Alonso was dominant due to his height; and he alone might have supplied an alternative Prospero. Alonso is a thankless role, and it is to James's credit that he gave this rather tedious royal blackguard decent things to do and dance. 

One unexpected twist helped this presentation tangibly. Darius James went to town on the plotters: Antonio and Sebastian - both played by girls, and danced quite brilliantly. Their sinister swirls, knives in hand, as they almost embrace their intended victims, grew into an hilarious pastiche. We always know they won't have the nerve, and so it proved. Will we - won't we, soon - not quite yet, maybe - perhaps not: they created a villainous yoyo, an emotional seesaw, that was as sly and witty as it was dark and sinister. The two girls' execution, on and off point, was unmatched: the best-honed ensemble of the evening. 

Sometimes we got the text: on the backcloth we were drawn in to Caliban's ‘This isle is full of noises' – Sibelius starts it a bit rowdily, perhaps missing the point – with the text unfolding before our eyes; and if not ‘Ye elves of hills', which almost (not quite) disappeared off the map, and might have offered Bishop a stunning solo; but Shakespeare's epilogue was scrolled in full, and James gave his stately young Prospero an inspiring finale: a sort of danced emotional apotheosis.'   

There are powers behind this throne. The assistant choreographer, Australian-trained Amy Doughty, had a hand in several of the more subtle and salient scenes, also coaching individual dancers, and always coaxing. If the costumes and spooky décor were superb, and they were, that was because Yvonne Greenleaf, Administrative Director, is much more than that. You can see her golden touch in almost every aspect of Ballet Cymru's activities; it is she who has made the company such a success since its inception; she gives it heart; and remains its inspiration. That says much for these exquisite young dancers, and mountains for her. 18-10-12 

Touring the UK till 1 December:  www.welshballet.co.uk 

Roderic Dunnett 

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