David Bintley’s Aladdin, made in 2008 (initially for the National Ballet of Japan; transferring westwards, to Birmingham, five years later) succeeds in presenting a familiar story, told with great clarity, whilst also being full of allusions to the nineteenth century classical form of Imperial Russian ballet.  

Tzu-Chao Chou as the Djinn of the Lamp with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet © Bill Cooper
Tzu-Chao Chou as the Djinn of the Lamp with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Bill Cooper

One can clearly assimilate his long scene in the treasure-laden cave of Open Sesame’ fame, full of glorious divertissements for corps de ballet and soloists, as a version of Le Corsaire’s Jardin Animé; or indeed any number of wedding celebrations. Bintley uses this series of dances to animate the treasure discovered by Aladdin, with dances for the Onyx and Pearls, Gold and Silver, Sapphires and Emeralds, a sparkling Diamond (Céline Gittens), topped off by a satisfying Rubies pas de deux (definitely, not Balanchine) for Nao Sakuma and Tyrone Singleton. However, Bintley – as required by the narrative order of the Aladdin tale - reverses the traditional structure by placing this pure dance in a long first act, leaving the essential narrative to rattle along in Acts 2 and 3.

The proliferation of fantasy literature as a source for dance theatre is profound, as suggested by the fact that two such stories – Pinocchio (by Jasmin Vardimon Company) and now Aladdin – have occupied this same stage within a matter of a few days. Both narratives have strong associations with eponymous Disney films, to which generations of young people have become conditioned. It is to Bintley’s credit that he has produced, in one of his most successful full-length ballets, an interpretation of this ancient tale from One Thousand and One Nights, which is far removed from the ever-popular cartoon movie and its more recent legacy in musical theatre.  It is however, nonetheless, a charming and witty ballet that will appeal to people of any age. Even - as I overheard one exasperated parent try to explain -  if wrongly anticipating the West End Musical version of Disney’s film, I guarantee that a child’s disappointment will not last for long.

Momoko Hirata as Princess Badr al-Budur and Mathias Dingman as Aladdin © Bill Cooper
Momoko Hirata as Princess Badr al-Budur and Mathias Dingman as Aladdin
© Bill Cooper

If Bintley’s choreography is out of a top-drawer marked ‘pure classicism’ and from a folder sub-titled ‘for entertainment only’, then this is a work that is immensely enjoyable for all the other creative contributions. The costumes, designed by Sue Blane, are wonderfully extravagant: from the jewel-evoking tutus of the cave scene, through to the awesome coat of the evil Mahgrib (known as Jafar in the Disney film), they ooze with glorious colours that evoke romantic images of a sun-drenched Arabian landscape of souks and desert (and magical jewels).

The sets, by Dick Bird, are no less pleasing. What would classical ballet be without its market-place scenes (another nod towards Le Corsaire)? Bird brings this opening into charming and spectacular realisation. Best of all is the cave, with an impressive entrance formed from the skeletal rib-cage of a Brontosaurus (or similar) with vivid colour-changing neon stalactites; and the suitably stunning first appearance of the genie (here, more authentically known as the Djinn of the Lamp), apparently floating on a cloud of smoke, several metres high. These dramatic special effects included, of course, a magic carpet ride for Aladdin and his Princess, accompanied by some very bouncy seagulls!

It was the score, composed by Carl Davis (originally for Robert Cohan’s Scottish Ballet production, which premiered in 2000) that convinced Bintley – in a single car journey – to make this ballet.   Davis is one of our finest living composers and we often know his music without knowing that we do: The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Cranford are just two of his notable successes. His music for Aladdin (which was substantially revisited for Bintley’s production) is captivating throughout, detailed in its description of the scènes d’action and lusciously romantic for the pas de deux.  If there were to be a prize for best new classical ballet score of the 21st Century, this one would definitely be amongst the contenders.

Tyrone Singleton and Nao Sakuma as Rubies © Bill Cooper
Tyrone Singleton and Nao Sakuma as Rubies
© Bill Cooper

As the Princess Badr al-Budur, Momoko Hirata was enchanting; gossamer-light and technically precise in a captivating performance. Mathias Dingman brought a jocular, mischievous whimsicality to Aladdin, backed up by becoming an effective romantic hero. He has to jump up and down on scenery (not least, the bathhouse) and he managed these feats with a worrying precariousness. Valentine Olovyannikov matched the awesomeness of his costume as the nasty Mahgrib; and, as always, Marion Tait stole her scenes, with notable mimetic projection, as Aladdin’s long-suffering mother.  

In addition to the Mahgrib’s coat of many colours, the strongest imagery of the ballet belonged to Tzu-Chao Chou’s memorable performance as the Djinn, covered in blue body paint; with another impactful cameo coming in the celebratory Lion dance (a version of the pantomime horse), performed with great gymnastic coordination by Kit Holder and Lachlan Monaghan. I recall Dingman at one end of this “pantomime” lion, back in 2013, so this pair might start aspiring to the title role ‘ere long!