Birmingham Royal Ballet: Solitaire, 5 Tangos and Pineapple Poll

Choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan (Solitaire), Hans van Manen (5 Tangos) and John Cranko (Pineapple Poll)

Birmingham Royal Ballet

York Theatre Royal

From 12 May 2017 to 13 May 2017

Review by James Ballands

One of the UK’s leading dance companies, Birmingham Royal Ballet combines a devotion to the classics with a passion for staging new, avant-garde work. In this triple-bill, audiences are given the chance to enjoy three short pieces—two from the 1950s and one from the 1970s—which demonstrate the diversity of classical ballet. While there is a noticeable lack of new work here, these ballets make for an eclectic and entertaining night at the theatre.

The evening begins with Kenneth MacMillan’s Solitaire (1956), which portrays an encounter between a lonely girl (Arancha Baselga) and a group of carefree young folk. They include her for a while, teaching her the rules to their various games and dances, but soon disappear altogether. The figure of the outsider / observer is a recurring motif in MacMillan’s oeuvre, and some critics have posited the idea that the other characters in the ballet are figments of the girl’s imagination.

In terms of choreography and design, Solitaire is the most classical of the three pieces. Despite this, there is a fresh, playful quality to the production, and its depiction of game playing and loneliness reminded me of Matthew Bourne’s Watch with Mother, which explores the highs and lows of primary school life. Arancha Baselga strikes a poignant note in her opening dance and there is a charming turn from Laura Day. Furthermore, the whole piece is elevated by the musical accompaniment of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted by Philip Ellis.

The next piece, Hans van Manen’s 5 Tangos (1977), offers a pleasing contrast to Solitaire. Whereas the first piece has a distinctly English feel, particularly in its use of Malcolm Arnold’s English Dances, the second combines the rigour and precision of ballet with the fire and passion of the tango. Van Manen was inspired by the music of Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla and, while his choreography doesn’t fully recreate the dangerous sensuality of the tango, the results are often electrifying.

The five dances that make up this piece are performed with great intensity by 14 skilled dancers (seven men and seven women). Jenna Roberts excels in the second tango, in which she dances with six male performers, and Mathias Dingman performs a thrillingly energetic solo in the third.

The third and final ballet, Pineapple Poll, was a smash hit during the Festival of Britain in 1951. Like Solitaire, John Cranko’s ballet has a distinctly English flavour. Not only is the plot taken from one of W S Gilbert’s poems, “The Bumboat’s Woman’s Story” (1870), but the score is a patchwork of various Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

When the HMS Cross Bun docks at Portsmouth, all the local women—including flower seller Pineapple Poll (Nao Sakuma)—fall in love with the dashing Captain Belaye (Mathias Dingman), much to the chagrin of humble ‘pot boy’ Jasper (Kit Holder) and the ship’s crew. In a desperate bid to win the Captain’s affection, the women smuggle onto the ship disguised as sailors, resulting in comic pandemonium.

There is much to enjoy in this final piece. Cranko’s choreography allows the dancers to stretch their comic muscles, and room is made for slapstick and buffoonery. Nao Sakuma gives a bright, charming performance as Pineapple Poll, and Matthias Dingman is hilarious as the conceited Captain. There are also memorable turns from Laura Day and Laura Purkiss, who imbue the Captain’s fiancée and her spinsterish aunt with terrific nervous energy. I was also struck by Osbert Lancaster’s lovely designs, which give the production a cheerful, cartoonish feel.