With The King Dances, based on the epic, 1653 twelve hour long production Le Ballet de la Nuit that gave the fourteen year old king Louis XlV the epithet ‘The Sun King', David Bintley, Birmingham Royal Ballet's artistic director, returns to the roots of ballet. Bintely is a very skilled narrative choreographer so I was interested in the way he would use more abstract language to convey a theme rather than a story. 

Max Maslen (Le Roi), Tyrone Singleton (Cardinal Mazarin) and artists of BRB in The King Dances
© Andrew Ross

Tyrone Singleton is a commanding presence as Night and Max Maslen as the King dances a lovely duet with Yijing Zhang as the Moon. They move between the clean, pure lines of each tableau in a measured way that prioritises the audience’s appreciation of the shapes they make and not necessarily the emotion, which felt exactly right for this ballet. The King moves through nightmares complete with devils and monsters to emerge in the morning afresh, master of his realm and everything in it.

Bintley gives most of the dancing to the men, but this is not the high octane jumping and turning we now expect from male dancers. He references the period with dance vocabulary that seemed perfectly old fashioned; beats, cabrioles and perfect little nipping scissones that gave me an insight into how ballet came to be obsessed with feet. All these steps developed in order for men to show off their well formed calf muscles, which was then thought to be the measure of a man. It is somewhat strange to think that an entire art form might be based on what an ancient court thought was attractive!

Katrina Lindsay’s designs perfectly evoke the period, with blazing fire torches lit to create a real feeling of slipping back in time and the tight stockings and courtly heeled shoes of the men made them hold themselves differently, they could not move like twenty-first century dancers in those costumes, even if they wanted to. For me the only false note was the entry of the Sun King at the climax of the ballet; his gold sequinned outfit was more Liberace than Louis XIV and even though the dancers were majestically regal, the effect was underwhelming. 

Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence as Fire in Arqués' Ignite
© Andrew Ross

The second work of the programme was an abstract work by Juanjo Arqués. Loosely based on a Turner’s 1835 painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, it took the themes of fire, river and sky from the painting and turned them into an abstract representation. The movement was all long extensions and masses of people sinuously wrapping themselves around each other, and I particularly enjoyed watching Delia Matthews as River eat up the space of the stage.

I liked Tatyana van Walsum’s costumes of loose, silken shirts in fiery colours that billowed as the ensemble moved and really did look like glowing, flickering flames. The backdrop of slanted mirrors multiplied the effects of the dancing but was not distracting, and I loved the way that throughout the evening the entrances at the back of the stage were used to simple yet surprising effect as dancers melted into darkness or seemed to appear from nowhere, the kind of illusion that only the combination of choreography, set and lighting design in live theatre can create. Kate Whitley’s powerful, driving score kept an exciting pace and held all the elements of the work together in a way that a good score can, supporting the dance but never overpowering it. 

Ignite is the third production in a collaborative programme called Ballet Now, bringing choreographers, designers and composers together to make new work and cultivate new audiences for dance. It’s a joint project between Birmingham Royal Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, and the piece will be performed in Amsterdam and also Baden Baden next year. 

In the programme notes, David Bintley invokes the spirit of Diaghilev, saying ‘There’s not been a commissioning programme like this since Diaghilev’. It’s important that new theatre makers do get the opportunity to let themselves fall into creative ferment. We must let the art form fizz and see what rises to the surface. Indeed, it is what Diaghilev did.