This week it was a pleasure to experience the work of three contemporary female choreographers with Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill of ‘Lyric Pieces’, ‘Sense of Time’ and ‘Peter and the Wolf’. These were three very different works which represent some of the wonderful choreography by women today. The first, ‘Lyric Pieces’, with music by Edvard Grieg and choreography by Jessica Lang, presents groups of dancers responding to the music and working with it in ways which range from the classical to the humorous. The lack of narrative frees the audience to ponder the interaction of dancers with the set: accordion-style ‘molo’ designs (according to the programme notes) fold out and morph into different geometric shapes which the dancers move, pull out, are hidden by or in; there is a playful element to it, but the shapes created by both these kraft paper constructions and the dancers’ bodies seems almost Modernist in aesthetic. The pared-back set strips back the performance to just movement, of people and objects, allowing the audience to absorb beauty: colour, movement, shapes, angles, and of course the music. ‘Lyric’ is always an interesting term; in this case it comes from Grieg’s music (Lyriske Stykker), but ‘lyric’ or ‘lyrical’ suggests the expression of emotion in a beautiful way – which this work does admirably.
The second work was ‘Sense of Time’, choreographed by Didy Veldman, which was probably my favourite of the three. Again this is abstract, but there is a thread of meaning throughout; the programme notes comment on the ‘stressful modern relationship with time: the sensation, especially in busy cities, that you’re running out of time and trying to grasp at it; then when you have calmer moments with those close to you, you realise how important it is to slow down’. It opens with some hypnotic slow-motion running, as one dancer moves exaggeratedly slowly among crowds of running figures, and then moves through different scenarios in which time is the controlling features, against a backdrop of a pile of suitcases. These serve as an effective visual metaphor, indicating both briefcases as a representation of pressure, stress and the need for speed, and travelling cases which recall the feeling of being in transit. The sections throughout made me think of Wordsworth’s ‘spots of time’, moments which seem to stand out from the moving mass of time to stay in the memory, and these spotlit moments of focus work very well, bringing coherence to the work. Time is an intrinsic part of the music (by Gabriel Prokofiev), with its rhythmic beats reminding us of the passing seconds, and of course of the dance itself, in which timing is always crucial. Yet the lack of control with which passing time can leave us is nicely undermined by the control of the dancers; by the end, however, the suitcases form an island onto which the cast cling as it moves away, like refugees clinging to a lifeboat. The choreography, set and music work so beautifully with the dancers to uncover layers of metaphor – I could watch this repeatedly.
The same is not true, sadly, of ‘Peter and the Wolf’. Narrated by the poet Hollie McNish to Sergei Prokofiev’s music, the choreography by Ruth Brill is nicely executed, and it seems like such a good idea, but for me it fell apart in the production: I don’t really understand why this tale which includes a duckpond and a wolf (so clearly rural) is set against a backdrop of scaffolding, traffic cones and graffiti. I don’t understand, either, why the cast are wearing rather unimaginative sportswear. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that this urban setting and costume is intended to appeal to a rather different, younger, audience than the usual (supposed) audience for ballet, but it confused me, and I think would seem confusing to other (younger) audience members too. The attempt to perform the story as a ballet is done as well as it can be, but it didn’t seem to add anything significant to the usual musical/narrated version, and I found myself rather puzzled by it. After the first two pieces, full of emotional intelligence and aesthetic beauty, I found ‘Peter and the Wolf’ rather a dismal end to an excellent evening, despite the pleasant exuberance of the cast.