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Posts Tagged ‘Chi Cao’

For a while we have been meaning to write something here about “ballet myth busters”, to address certain preconceptions about this art form often seen as inaccessible, stuffy and niche. David Bintley’s Cyrano might be just what we needed to illustrate how ballet can be demystified. Created two years ago for Birmingham Royal Ballet, it shows that story-based ballets can be fresh, funny and accessible and that classical dancing need not always be centered around tutu-clad ballerinas.

Taking Edmond Rostand’s well-known play and staying close to its text, Bintley’s ballet narrows down the gap between theatre and dance. For starters the costumes are not what you would expect: plenty of ruffles, French breeches and big boots for the men and Romantic, Toile-de-Jouy-chic, for the heroine Roxane. Unlike the formality of classics Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, there’s something unceremonious and inviting about the way the audience can see various characters strolling onstage and preparing to watch the “performance within the performance” as they take their seats, it’s almost like a levelling of the playing field.

Cyrano (Roxane and Cyrano)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Robert Parker as Cyrano Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

Robert Parker’s Cyrano is sympathetically played, with equal measures of tragedy and comedy. As in the play, the sad story of continued stoicism in the face of unrequited love is counterbalanced with plenty of humour. In a scene at Ragueneau’s Bakery, the bakers spoof the Sleeping Beauty’s Rose Adagio with baguettes and tartelettes in lieu of Aurora’s roses. In another moment our antihero Cyrano uses hilarious diversion tactics to cover up the secret wedding between Roxane and Christian, keeping rival De Guiche away.

Cyrano pretends to be a stranger with fantastic tales about the moon. I read afterwards that this episode of Rostand’s play is inspired by the real Cyrano de Bergerac who had written a work entitled The Other World: Society and Government of the Moon, considered one of the earliest science fiction compositions. This peculiar scene could easily fall into camp but Bintley manages to make Cyrano’s dancing while wearing a glass light globe over his head both wacky and dignified.

Bintley can get Romantic too. He fully conveys Cyrano’s gift for poetry and love letters through dance and sometimes mime, both beautifully realised by Robert Parker. The various pas de deux between Roxane (Elisha Wilis) and Christian (Iain Mackay, ex-BRB now guesting from Corella Ballet) are full of “head over heels in love” intricate lifts to represent the young lovers’ passion, with full credit here to Mackay’s excellent partnering skills.

Cyrano (Roxane and Christian)

Elisha Willis as Roxane and Iain Mackay as Christian in BRB's Cyrano. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB ©

In addition to the central characters there are great roles for BRB’s male soloists such as Ragueneau the baker (Christopher Larsen) and Cyrano’s cadet friend Le Bret, danced by the marvellous Chi Cao. Marion Tait‘s character part as Roxane’s jovial duenna is also a class act. If I had one wish, it would be for stronger female choreography as Roxane’s solos are very marked by attitude turns. But just as I start to notice this, Bintley puts Roxane into bravura mode. She bursts into battle camp cross dressed as a “soldier” in the final act and dances a sequence of typical male steps including some lovely pirouettes à la seconde. I should have seen it coming. Cyrano is most definitely a myth busting ballet.

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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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