Beauty and the Beast

Choreography David Bintley
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells

Nao Sakuma as Belle and Iain Mackay as the Beast Credit: Roy Smiljanic
Michael Revie as the Raven Credit: Bill Cooper
Jonathan Payn as Monsieur Cochon Credit: Roy Smiljanic
Samara Downs as Vanité and Victoria Marr as Fière Credit: Roy Smiljanic

The tender tale of Beauty and the Beast makes for a fabulous ballet. As suited to ballet as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, et al. Artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet David Bintley says he’d been mulling it over for many years and in 2003 made the commitment. In 2008 he restaged it. And here it is again.

A traditional neo-classical mime ballet—there’s lots of story to tell—with comic and dramatic interludes breaking up the few moments of lyrical dance. I’ve always thought Bintley follows in the steps of Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton—one sees their influence clearly.

With a clutch of Japanese and Chinese dancers in lead roles, an oriental tone, also heard in Glenn Buhr’s wonderful mood defining score (played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia under Paul Murphy’s baton, and much appreciated by the audience), is made visible. And is the Beast’s ball quoting the knight’s dance from Romeo and Juliet?

There are inevitable nods to Europe (Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête film), and broad British satire in the comic grotesque Ashtonian caricatures of Belle’s ‘ugly’ sisters Fière and Vanité (Angela Paul and Samara Downs doing their spiteful petulant best), their suitor Monsieur Cochon (trotter shaking porcine Jonathan Payn), a Grandmère (Laura Purkiss going down in splits), and buxom guests.

Philip Prowse’s storybook designs set the standard. They are magnificent, like pages of a granite book opening into a spine-tingling Freudian centre: gothic gloomy, deliciously dark and opulent for the Beast’s hidden palace, outrageously funny for the Merchant’s (Michael O’Hare a put-upon softie as Belle’s widowed father) house with pelmet-perched Hitchcockian stuffed birds that suddenly flex their wings. And a wedding feast garland-bedecked with hung game.

Mark Jonathan has the tricky job of lighting this bronze and black set: light enough to see the Beast appear out of the haze and dark enough for mystery. The moment the Merchant’s wrist is grabbed as he reaches to pluck a rose for his daughter Belle should make little ones jump.

And there is special effects magic with the mystery: a candelabra that lights spontaneously, a jug that pours with no visible assistance, a chair’s arms that encircle the Merchant in a tight embrace, and a magic mirror.

Humans that become animals, animals that become human—the natural order of things turned topsy-turvy by a Woodsman (Valentin Olovyannikov) with a wide green cloak that brings Swan Lake’s Rothbart to mind. A playful vixen he saves from the Prince turned Beast turns into a Wild Girl (Yaoqian Shang) and back.

Ravens replace Swans. The Beast’s majordomo Raven (Mathias Dingman) brings his unkindness (not the case here) of jazzy ravens to assist Belle in her journey to the palace, she in white on their black wings.

Of course all eyes are on Belle and her Beast. A dreamy girl, not at all like her greedy sisters, we first encounter her in her father’s library picking a book and dancing her first solo.

I caught the second night cast of Beauty and the Beast, Belle performed by petite principal Momoko Hirata (the only principal tonight amongst first soloists, soloists and artists) and the feline Beast by soloist Yasuo Atsuji: she a delicate flower, he effective in his sorrow. Conveying character through a mask isn’t easy, the body has to speak, and speak he does.

Their duets are gently touching and her growing love for something other is developed with great thought. Her confusion at losing him is profound. His death scene on a black catafalque centre stage, his dance of sorrow, dying throes, redemption and reincarnation are a mystery of illusion.

Here is a handsome prince before her and she still looks for the creature she has grown to love. For his gentleness, not his frustrated and misplaced anger. He is happy; she is not so sure. She’ll need some more convincing. But that’s another tale…

Visually dramatic, a prologue, and two acts with three scenes each, Beauty and the Beast fits neatly into a two-hour frame with interval between the acts, which is perfect for a family night out.

Birmingham Royal Ballet brings to London two contrasting programmes: four performances of Beauty and the Beast, and three of Shadows of War, a bill of ‘three ballets touched by conflict’, eagerly awaited by ballet aficionados not least for Gillian Lynne’s recreation of Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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