thu 02/12/2021

Curated by Carlos, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells review - a star turn | reviews, news & interviews

Curated by Carlos, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells review - a star turn

Curated by Carlos, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells review - a star turn

Carlos Acosta and Alessandra Ferri show the young things how it's done

Never say never: Carlos Acosta and Alessandra Ferri, both officially retired from the stage, re-unite in Chacona, by Goyo MonteroImages - Johan Persson

When a great performer takes on the running of a ballet company, the effect on its dancers can be transformative. It happened when Mikhail Baryshnikov took on American Ballet Theatre in the 1980s. It’s been happening at English National Ballet since 2012 under Tamara Rojo.

Now it’s the turn of Birmingham Royal Ballet to up its game under the influence of Carlos Acosta, who brings not only his under-the-skin experience, but new tastes and ideas, globally formed. The second edition of Carlos Curates – a triple bill of work new to the company and to British audiences – shows the dancers visibly invigorated by new stylistic challenges. Their London showing also launches Sadler’s Wells’ Video on Demand platform, adding several zeros to BRB's sum potential audience and positioning them on a much bigger map.

And what better way for an artistic director to raise standards than to appear on stage with the company. Chacona, the biggest and best piece on this programme, had its UK premiere in Birmingham back in June, but for Sadler’s Wells has gained a new opening section created by the choreographer, Goyo Montero, specifically to honour the combined performing artistry of Carlos Acosta and guest artist Alessandra Ferri. To call this a headline event would be to undersell it.Birmingham Royal Ballet in ChaconaChacona is set to solo music by Bach, played live on stage (a treat in itself) first by a violinist (Robert Gibbs), then a classical guitarist (Tom Ellis), then by pianist Jonathan Higgins. If at first you fear the whole thing might tip into William Forsythe territory (his early classic Steptext flogged that same violin piece almost to death), the fear is soon allayed. The focus here is not on deconstructing ballet but on stage geometry (pictured above), ranks of black-clad figures extending in lines so long and unswerving that, under sooty lighting, they appear to stretch beyond the limits of the stage. And if these dancers are not yet 100 per cent sharp and clean in this sleek, Euro-speak choreography, whose more outré demands include falling flat on their faces, they are clearly enjoying the ride.

As for the new frontispiece, it is beauteous. And while it’s neither usual nor polite to mention performers’ ages, in the case of Acosta and Ferri, both officially long-retired, it would be perverse not to. He is 48 and she 58 (making her debut with BRB a full four decades after joining its sister company as a teenager) and together they give a masterclass in stage presence, placement, partnering and poise, the company dancers creating an ever-changing frame around them. The discreet self-effacement of Acosta as a partner was always exemplary, and he has lost none of his pantherish personal style. Ferri, meanwhile, with her Bambi limbs, exquisite feet and hyper-musical timing, is as compelling as ever – though some credit must be due to Montero for making choreography that fits her so well. Together these two evergreen talents create one of those rare exalted moments in live performance that make your scalp tingle.Yijing Zhang in City of a Thousand TradesIf the rest of the evening were of the same cut, this review would carry five stars. Commissioned by the company, City of a Thousand Trades – a paean to the multifareous industrial and commercial energy of Birmingham – is impressive, even thrilling, in parts. Choreographer Miguel Altunaga turns the ensemble into a workforce, handling scaffolding poles martial arts style, and cutting high-speed pathways across the stage like ants, each intent on its task. Watching the melée, you brace for accidents, but the dodging is deft. Above, on a scaffold platform, two percussionists power through a global range of kit, co-ordinating who knows how with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia far away in the pit. But did all this need to be larded with a voiceover from Birmingham’s poet laureate Casey Bailey? His words are fine and noble, describing Brum’s industrial past and present, but there are too many of them, and they're not always audible.

Over-egging was again an issue in Daniela Cardim’s Imminent, another BRB commission. Under its golden light the dancers look glorious, but the piece sags under the weight of unearned emotion, all glossy surface and stricken looks. When a performer puts on “dancer face”, it’s to cover an absence, I suspect. There was more substance coming from the Sadler's Wells pit, where the Sinfonia, under the baton of Koen Kessels, tore into Paul Englishby’s huge, film-noir tinged score with muscular panache.

My personal strategy for sitting through an ensemble piece I dislike is to track individual dancers. There are always one or two who grab the eye, who seem to clarify the steps, intensify the energy. In this instance I was drawn to Tzu-Chao Chou, whose joyous verve lights up the space on his every entrance. I also expect to see a lot more of the gloriously long-limbed Yijing Zhang, a talent new to me (pictured above). BRB is a seedbed, that's for sure, diversely sown.

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