Again and again, I was struck by the “come as you are” quality of the performances I attended in London. On a Friday evening, I arrived at Sadler’s Wells from my day of sightseeing feeling a bit guilty about showing up in jeans, a T-shirt, and trainers (Brit-speak for sneakers). But the women sitting next to me were in trendy torn denim, not interrupting their conversation in French as they stood to let me by. They were probably in their 30s, and to my right I had a group in their 70s.
The program was called, cryptically, “Polarity & Proximity,” and was a triple bill of works presented by Birmingham Royal Ballet. I didn’t know what to expect from this company, which I’d never seen and hear very little about here in the States. But I was impressed with them, finding the dancers strong and technically excellent. At least at the outset.
First up was a piece called Kin by choreographer Alexander Whitley. The men were particularly good here, tossing off challenging choreography in sync. The piece had a beautiful central pas de deux but I jotted down this note about the work as a whole: “Nothing specific to say.” While watching this ballet, I was wondering how to describe it. As with so much work being made these days, some parts of it were very contemporary and some parts were very classical. Which led me to think about the dancers, all of whom would have received solid ballet training but which was little in evidence in the piece. Which further led me to decide that dancing is like writing, with technique being the grammar. You have to have the foundation so that you can move off of it. A lot of great writing throws grammar out the window, but you can bet that the author knew the grammar to begin with. Likewise, even if a dancer isn’t performing steps that are recognizable (and definable) as ballet steps, they’re using all of that technique to execute the movements. So: foundation matters!
The next piece, Embrace, by George Williamson, was a world premiere. It was commissioned as part of Ballet Now, a new joint program by BRB and Sadler’s Wells to develop choreographic talent. Embrace was a gently narrative work, telling “the story of one man’s journey towards understanding and acceptance.” Williamson’s choreography did more or less get this across. I was fascinated by the inclusion of a dramaturg in the credits—Williamson worked with someone to create the story he wanted to tell.
Closing out the evening was the ballet I came to see: Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. I first saw this piece in New York, danced by American Ballet Theatre at City Center, and I was so blown away that I bought a ticket to see it again the next night. I can still remember Gillian Murphy in the work! In the Upper Room is one of the original sneaker ballets. Set to music by Philip Glass, it’s 42 nonstop minutes. It’s fast and intense and as the finale built at this performance I crossed my fingers that the dancers made it through. Here, the company looked a bit ragged, not quite together, lacking the solidity they brought to Kin. But the ballet held up; it’s still a masterpiece, and the audience erupted into applause at the end.
Live for the applause…
Birmingham Royal Ballet: Polarity & Proximity
June 15, 2018, at 7:30 pm at Sadler’s Wells
Kin, by Alexander Whitely; Embrace, by George Williamson; In the Upper Room, by Twyla Tharp