The audience at the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s penultimate performance of The Tempest in London this season were treated to a pre-show talk with Kit Holder, Lachlan Monaghan, and Sally Beamish. Holder introduced the evening, speaking of the Company’s focus on Shakespeare in this anniversary year. The only production that hasn’t been related to Shakespeare this year has been The Nutcracker - its sheer popularity making it nigh on impossible to cut. The Tempest is the final production in this year long celebration and they invested in it fully, commissioning a new score and set.
Sally Beamish spoke of her pleasure at being commissioned to compose a ballet, a first for her, and something she has desired for some time. She talked of the creative process – that David Bintley (Choreographer and Director of BRB) sent her a storyboard which included how long each dance would be and who was in it, but not what emotions were being expressed. This was supplemented by Skype sessions before she started work on a new scene in which they would discuss issues of character and emotion, to make sure they were both focusing on the same ideas. It took her eighteen months to compose and unusually she wrote it as an orchestral score and then had to create a piano version for rehearsals (composers would ordinarily do the reverse).
Beamish and Monaghan went on to speak of how the dancers responded to the music and how different it was to have in mind the dancers’ needs when creating. The emphasis on clear beats, albeit not so far as to make it monotonous for the audience to listen to, was a new challenge for Beamish and Bintley rejected some sections as too lyrical, meaning the dancers would have struggled to know where they were in it. The cast themselves didn’t hear the full score until two nights before opening night and had some moments of difficulty trying to pick out beats that had been obvious from the piano but once they were woven into the percussion suddenly became more difficult to discern.
Monaghan spoke briefly of the pleasure of having a piece created on him. Neptune was created for him, and although he is Caliban in the second cast he was still witness to a lot of the creative process. Neptune is not a character from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and so was an entirely new character, there were no previous examples for him to look to. For Caliban there have been various versions to draw from, and he watched this version being created for Tyrone. He spoke of the need to make a role yours, whether it be one that has been performed many times by many performers or a brand new role. He spoke of Bintley’s skill at bringing out individual strengths. Having delighted the audience for half an hour, the dancers had to rush backstage to prepare for the evening’s performance.
The stage is set as a watery expanse, gold glimmering in the centre. Ariel (Max Maslen) floats to the gold, swimming through the ‘water’ elegantly. Before we know it there are waves crashing across the stage, a skillful use of billowing silk, strobe lighting adds to the drama, and it is a spectacular start. The staging throughout must be commended, Rae Smith (of War Horse fame) having done a first class job transporting us to a magical, ethereal world. The costume is also a delightful mix of the Elizabethan and the magical, and yet the choreography does not quite hold up to the impressiveness of the aesthetics. When I think back to the performance I barely remember any sequences of dance, what remains is the staging.
The dancers are not to be criticized, they showed their skill, of which they have plenty, yet there was something missing. The complexity of the characters was not developed and although the narrative was carefully followed it lacked the power of the play. There was humour with Trinculo and Stephano, their drunkenness and circus-esque performances added a light tone to the evening but Prospero, despite his impressive standing does not have opportunity to show his struggles. The divertissements of Act Two, although perfectly pretty, are too lengthy, reminiscent of the Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty where you are left wondering if it is really necessary to give so much time to extraneous characters.
There are moments of stillness with almost the whole Company on stage which were quite stunning but the movements themselves did not encourage the audience to engage with the narrative. Beamish’s score adds atmosphere to the proceedings, and is a pleasant change with the prominence of percussion. Overall, a visually and aurally enjoyable evening that could be great with a little more attention to the choreography.