What makes a writer traditional, T.S. Eliot said, is “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together.” Balanchine’s seminal ballet Serenade, set to the mourning and yearning music of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra, is exactly that embodiment of timeless and temporal. It remains aware of ballet’s history – of what Toni Bentley calls its ‘legendary triune’ – through choreographic nods to Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake but it is also defiantly modern. There is no comprehensible narrative, instead metamorphosing shapes and mere whispers of anything other than the abstract; there are no elaborate costumes, instead just the powdery marshmallow pinks of Karinska’s tulle skirts. And, watching it, Serenade is about as ballet as ballet gets. It is entirely and intelligently traditional. But it deals in suggestion much more than anything soul-stirring. There is little to latch onto, except for those who know the technical intricacies of ballet well enough to recognise their faithful execution.
A hallucinogenic quality infects the performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet as the ensemble twist and flutter into evolving patterns. A mere blink, and suddenly the previously full stage is empty. In fact, all it takes is a slightly longer blink to miss the whole thing altogether. The delicate piece is over quickly and, after the interval, Tchaikovsky’s strings give way to pure bombast. Choir and orchestra throw themselves full tilt into the epic O Fortuna, the first piece in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. It’s a fierce contrast.
Carmina Burana was David Bintley’s first production as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet and it’s a statement. On top of the technical complexity of Serenade there’s also a moral complexity in Carmina Burana. Sexuality pervades the cantata and, as opposed to the dandelion delicacy of Serenade in act 1, act 2 flaunts its brashness.
Epic clashes with erotic; crashing timpanis are accompanied by Fortuna, Empress of the world, as her straightened arms jolt like the hands of a clock. She holds her palms upwards like a pair of scales, or Zeus meting out portions of Fortune and misery to mortals from his jars. Now there is narrative: three seminarians lose faith. The first strips off his collar, the second his shirt, and the third spends most of his time in only his underpants. They inhabit nightclubs and try to seduce prostitutes.
Religion is a fitting theme: the music seems satanic, appropriating texts found in a Benedictine monastery to these diabolical, minor key chants. It is a bastardisation of faith, the sacred corrupted to become profane.
Philip Prowse’s fearful design has huge Damoclean crucifixes hanging over the performers that turn blood red. An evanescent moon fills the back of the stage. In The Tavern, under tiers of coloured lights, the ensemble dance on their chairs and ride them like wild horses across the stage. Bintley’s choreography is beautifully grotesque. It mocks hard-edged masculinity, and certainly uproots the stereotypes of male dancers, with men banging their heads and flipping the bird and pawing at women, while the women themselves are clad in S&M gear.
In the third scene the men have paper phalluses hanging from their crotches, reviving the ancient tradition of satyr plays. There’s a huge amount of crotch rubbing between dancers and a stunning visual effect with a billowing curtain.
Tender little Serenade is completely trounced by Bintley’s balletic beast. It’s an odd coupling, and not an entirely successful one since Carmina Burana, bolstered by the mighty Ex Cathedra choir, is incomparably more enjoyable, richer and more complex.