War on a chess board; simplicity and purity of line; and a rollicking Victorian nonsense musical—all rolled into one evening in London this week. Autumn Glory was a true mixed bag of styles and tempos, and recalled Birmingham Royal Ballet’s heritage that had its beginnings at Sadlers Wells Theatre.

Checkmate © BRB / Graeme Braidwood
Checkmate
© BRB / Graeme Braidwood

In 1931, Ninette de Valois moved her ballet school into Sadlers Wells with the aim of training young dancers in an English style, dancers who would then form the core of a national ballet company. She founded the Vic-Wells Ballet, which was the predecessor of The Royal Ballet and its sister company, Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. The two companies performed in London, with SWRB also touring throughout Britain until 1990 when an opportunity arose for the latter to relocate to the Midlands and a new home at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Renamed Birmingham Royal Ballet, it has continued to thrive and bring ballet to new audiences. The indefatigable de Valois’s determination was fulfilled. She was also a prolific choreographer, with a dance vision that would be considered contemporary and thought provoking even today—and BRB is dedicated to preserving some of them, one of which was shown in this visit.

De Valois created Checkmate in 1937, a dramatic time in history with much fear and speculation of unrest in Europe. So this ballet is more than a visual game of chess being played out on stage. It becomes a commentary on the process of war with some of the game’s pieces taking on human actions. It is vividly staged from its modern art backdrop of brightly coloured triangles, to music by Arthur Bliss and the use of vibrant red and black costumes and lighting. (De Valois, who knew little about chess, declared that white wouldn’t work on stage!) It is a work that has lost little of its impact over the years and one that BRB does well. The opening frontispiece shows Love and Death preparing for a game of chess with exaggerated gestures and deadly motives. Then the stage burst with light as eight Red Pawns in crimson unitards, capes and skullcaps pique their way across the black and white chequered floor, dancing uniformly (though sometimes lacking in sharpness and perkiness.) The Red Knights appear—Chi Cao and Joseph Caley—and take their stands with Cao showing his superiority in a robust Czardas-style dance. Their opponents arrive bearing their Black Queen, the central figure of the ballet. Icy, strong, yet sensual, and well defined by Samara Downs, she unhesitatingly enters the battle with piercing stabbing pointe work, high kicks and wily manner until she finally kills the Knight and wins the game. Checkmate is a ballet of showmanship and bravura—the complete opposite of the second ballet of the evening.

Symphonic Variations, by that other British master craftsman, Frederick Ashton was performed in 1946—the first British ballet to be created for the newly opened Covent Garden. Ashton considered it to be true English style and it is one of the most beautiful abstract ballets in both Royal Ballet repertoires. It is poetry in motion—and often stillness. Stripped bare of staging distractions, six dancers in dazzling white costumes with black trim, dance in front of Sophie Fedorovitch’s simple design of black line swirls on panels of yellowish green. The movements flow, understated and never flashy. The three men and three women exude serenity and inner peace though, like swans, there is much effort going on unseen beneath the surface. The original cast included three of Sadlers Wells most noted ballerinas—Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyn and Pamela May—and many still hold them up as exemplary examples of harmony and musicality. However, BRB’s cast saw Jenna Roberts, Arancha Baselga and Laura-Jane Gibson, with Iain Mackay, Jamie Bond and Tsu-Chao Chou in the male roles, and one could not fault them. They were light footed, together in steps and poses, and dignified. Dancing to Cesar Franck’s glorious music (played beautifully by company pianist Jonathan Higgins), the ballet was twenty-one minutes of bliss.

It isn’t often that you can chuckle out loud at the ballet but John Cranko’s Pineapple Poll is a real comedy. This romp through some toe-tapping Gilbert and Sullivan melodies has an improbable story-line—the local girls, including Pineapple Poll, swoon and sigh over the dashing Captain Belaye, much to their sailor sweethearts annoyance. Following him, the girls dress up as sailors and board the ship, only to find that the captain has just married. Aghast for a moment, the girls quickly rip off their false beards and striped shirts, and beg forgiveness from their loved ones. In another improbable happening, the captain is promoted to Admiral and Poll’s hapless boyfriend Jasper, who serves beer at the inn, is made captain—a uniform that Poll admires much. So all ends happily with Belaye’s new aunt-in-law being turned into a Britannia figure. Elisha Willis made a sprightly, feisty Poll leaping across the stage and spinning like a top. Cesar Morales was truly debonair and showy in his solos while Mathias Dingman as Jasper was a gentle, patient soul following his Poll. The chuckles and humming continued on the way out of the theatre and across at the bus stop. Now how often does that occur after a night at the ballet?