While there are different theories as to what Frederick Ashton’s Symphonic Variations is about, ranging from the changing of seasons to a quasi-religious awakening, watching Birmingham Royal Ballet’s revival brings to mind John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, which speaks of silent beauty and immortality. This is precisely what Ashton’s creation is: a thing of timeless beauty.
The three ballerinas wear plain, skirted leotards, while their partners are in toga-like costumes. Their hair is adorned with garlands – a Grecian aesthetic – and in their movements, they replicate this idea: running and dipping, holding hands, forming a delicate daisy chain. At one point, the three females surround the central male, in a sort of grande arabesque, like mythical statues, graces.
César Franck’s music, conveying simultaneously mystery and melancholy, and accompanied by an abstract backdrop of swirling lines, lend the dance an otherworldliness. This air of mystery is enhanced by the dancers’ soft, rounded port de bras followed by the straight, angled movement of their arms.
The dancers have a tough job with such a seminal work – it’s difficult to watch without thinking of the formidable original line-up of Margot Fonteyn and Moira Shearer, among others – but the company carry off the task well. The central pairing of Jenna Roberts and Ian MacKay is luscious and immensely watchable, though Tzu-Chao Chou almost steals the show in a more minor part. Nerves seem to get the better of Roberts and she only seems to be truly enjoying herself at the very end as the dance enters its final joyous, spring-like movement. Symphonic Variations is Ashton’s manifesto of the British style. This is dance for dance’s sake, and words don’t begin to do it justice.
What follows could not be more different. John Cranko’s populist and slightly silly Pineapple Poll is very much a product of its time. It tells the story of the titular Polly who, despite being the object of affection for Jasper the pot boy, falls in love – along, seemingly, with the entire female population of Portsmouth – with the handsome Capyain Belaye of the HMS Hot Cross Bun.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet here proves it can do funny. The slapstick quota is filled by the smouldering but none too bright captain (César Morales), his flat-footed, doll-like bride (Laura Purkiss) and her feisty aunt (Victoria Marr). Elisha Willis, as Pineapple Poll, displays an effective blend of humour and technique. She’s never particularly showy, but she never puts a step wrong and exudes a gentle warmth. The choreography isn’t particularly memorable or challenging; Pineapple Poll’s charm lies in its comedy. By the end of it, you find yourself giggling like one of the women on board the Hot Cross Bun, so in this way the piece succeeds.
Checkmate, the piece which opens this mixed programme, feels very lacklustre in comparison with the other two works. Choreographed by Ninette de Valois, founder of the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet School, as well as a member of the legendary Ballet Russes, it’s a case of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Using chess imagery, we are introduced to characters that reflect their positions on the chess board and their imagined characteristics: the Red King is a frail old man who must be protected; the pawns make small, controlled steps; the knights cut across others in an L-shape.
At other times, these rules go out of the window; while there will clearly be some severe choreographic limitations if all the standard chess movements are adhered to, using some but not others feels like a cop-out. It also leads to some lapses in logic. Why wouldn’t the Black Queen kill the Red King instantly, when the others are not there to protect him?
The biggest impediment to Checkmate, though, is its pace, which is partly the fault of the somewhat uninspiring score. All the action seems to unfold in slow motion. While this does allow the audience to savour the lines of the icy Black Queen (Sarama Downs), at around 45 minutes, the piece feels over-long considering there are only two arcs to the story: the First Red Knight’s attempted killing of the Black Queen and his subsequent fate, and the Red King’s death. It is unfortunate that Chi Cao’s First Red Knight did not convince in his strength, nor the ultimate weakness he showed to his enemy; Downs was seductive, but with not quite enough viciousness for a femme fatale. But when it finds its feet, Checkmate reveals itself as a piece of dark drama. In the last few minutes, as the black chess pieces close in on a vulnerable Red King, the suspense builds along with the music and it finally becomes stylistically exciting. It’s just a shame it takes so long to reach this stage.