Fire and Fury

Choreography by David Bintley and Juanjo Arqués, music by Stephen Montague and Kate Whitley
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler's Wells Theatre
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Fire and Fury is a double bill of David Bintley’s The King Dances (which premièred in 2015) and Ignite, a new commission from Juanjo Arqués which is a co-production between BRB and Dutch National Opera and Ballet.

The King of The King Dances is the teenage Louis XIV and the ballet is inspired by Le Ballet de la nuit, a masque-like court performance in which the Sun King himself danced in 1653 that traced the hours between nightfall and sunrise divided into four watches. The original lasted twelve hours, this 40 minutes, but its black and gilt courtiers bearing flambeau and its stately steps suggest a baroque elegance and, though Stephen Montague’s music is modern, the opening and closing movements employ a seventeenth-century intrada. Courtly gesture with extended arms, precise pacing, deft footwork and held poses echo the elegance of the French court, the style of the step altered by heels instead of ballet shoes.

This is an homage to the origins of modern ballet but the work also reflects the relationship between the young king and his mentor and chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, danced with assurance by Tyrone Singleton.

From his first appearance, Singleton dominates the stage, in charge as Mazarin, who becomes The Night. At first, Max Maslen’s Louis is innocent and gentle. Seeing the moon in the sky, he reaches out to her personification as Selene and she comes to join him. Maslen and Yijing Zhang as Selene have a touching pas de deux, not erotically romantic but yin and yang like, all about the delicate balance between them. Zhang is the only female dancer in this all-male ballet, for even the court ladies who entertain the king are danced by men in white masks.

Cradled by courtiers, the king sleeps but Mazarin controls his dreams too, he appears in a nightmare as the Devil, preceded by demons with horns and phalluses and hounds of hell werewolves in choreography that becomes much more modern.

As dawn approaches, Honour, Grace, Renown and Valour pay homage before Mazarin announces the appearance of Louis as a golden Apollo: the Sun King who would soon take power into his own hands.

Seeing this ballet in BBC4’s programme The King Who Invented Ballet, I found it a little disappointing. In the theatre, it works magnificently, well served by Katrina Lindsay’s design and Peter Mumford’s chiaroscuro lighting.

Ignition has also been inspired by history: the burning of the Houses of Parliament in1834, or more directly by Turner’s paintings of that conflagration. This isn’t a narrative ballet about people or politics but about elements and their interaction, like Turner’s work, its dynamic colour as the movement of air in the sky fans the flames and the river in movements that composer Kate Whitely calls Fire, Reflection and Burn.

Tatyana van Walsum’s setting places nine vertical mirrors behind the dancers, sometimes raised above them, reflections that will differ for every spectator and seem to double the number of dancers. They are all dressed in pale blue-grey tights and vests over which silk shirts in yellows orange and red can be worn, left open to float and swirl with every movement in a flicker of flames, or pale blue and cloud-like.

Arqués’s choreography makes the dancers curling flames, smouldering embers, blown into sudden life, from stillness to swirling activity so fast you can’t see the steps, ripples of fire billowing upward that give way to the relative calmness of sky and water.

Mathias Dingman’s Sky jetés over ground-covering flames, fanning them, then dances a duet with Delia Mathews as River as though with his own reflection. Girls cross the stage on pointe, a steady progression like the flow of the river. Max Maslem, Miki Mizutani and Tsu-Chao Chou as Ignition move through the others to spread the flames and Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence as Fire flare up in a dazzling duet.

After the conflagration, the dancers come forward, shedding their flame-shirts, and stand in tranquillity but, as they retreat into the darkness, the sound of crackling embers replaces the orchestra. A warning? Perhaps even a reference to the unrest underlying this Mother of Parliaments.

The fires of the French court’s flambeau are a tentative link with the Westminster fire while the grey ashes contrast with Louis’ sunburst, but these very different ballets make an interesting pairing.

Howard Loxton