To mark his twenty years as Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley has created The King Dances, which was presented at London’s Sadler’s Wells this weekend alongside Balanchine's Theme and Variations (1947) and Ashton's Enigma Variations (1968).

The King Dances, William Bracewell as Le Roi Soleil with artists of Birmingham Royal ballet © Bill Cooper
The King Dances, William Bracewell as Le Roi Soleil with artists of Birmingham Royal ballet
© Bill Cooper

Bintley's work explores the roots of classical ballet, drawing from the imagery associated with Louis XIV, the French king who is credited with the conception of ballet as a performing art. A dancer and choreographer himself, Louis XIV appeared in some 80 roles in 40 different ballets and is most remembered for his performance in Le Ballet de la Nuit (1653), where he appeared as Apollo, the Sun god. It is from this ballet that Bintley draws his inspiration for The King Dances, as he explains in the documentary The King Who Invented Ballet (broadcast by the BBC last month), which captures his research and creative process. The choreography of Bintley’s new work recreates rather than reproduces baroque dancing and is infused with images that contrast night and day to allow a final climatic emergence of the King as the sun who overcomes the darkness of the night. The work is structured around the passage of time at night, from sunset to dawn, with a final incursion in a nightmarish dream with devils and demons preceding the sun rise.

A dream-like atmosphere, created by Peter Mumford’s lighting design with torches and candle-like lights, surrounds the action. Katrina Lindsay’s sparse setting and baroque-inspired costumes place the emphasis in the dancing bodies, ornamented with elegant, majestic garments that match the evocative splendor of the movements. The score, especially commissioned to Stephen Montague, is inspired by 17th century music but has a 21st century touch, particularly in the percussion-dominated ending. The choreography, for an all-male cast except for the role of the Moon, is most effective in the last passages of the ballet, especially during the pas de cinq where the body of the king (in a reference to the Rose adagio in The Sleeping Beauty) is handled by four demons. Also noteworthy is the choreography for the pas de quatre that precedes the ending, powerfully danced by Yasuo Atsuji, Brandon Lawrence, Feargus Campbell, Mathias Dingman that evening. Together with them, William Bracewell portrayed a youthful, poised and regal Sun King and Tyrone Singleton projected a commanding, magnificent presence in the roles of La Nuit (the Night) and Cardinal Mazarin (the First Minister of the kingdom during Louis XIV's early years).

The King Dances, Yijing Zhang as Selune, la Lune and William Bracewell as Le Roi © Bill Cooper
The King Dances, Yijing Zhang as Selune, la Lune and William Bracewell as Le Roi
© Bill Cooper

George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations was a brilliant start to the evening, with Balanchine’s homage to Petipa and to Tchaikovsky’s music danced with joy, gracefulness and technical precision by the whole cast, superbly lead by Momoko Hirata and Joseph Caley. Both principals were technically excellent but I wished for a more sensitive and warmer performance from Hirata towards her attentive and noble partner. The company’s rendering of Enigma Variation was less spectacular. An elusive work with a thin plot that sketches a set of characters as they are evoked by the composer Edward Elgar, the protagonist of the story and Ashton’s inspiration for the work (which is set to his music), it became deeper and more poignant as the performance unfolded. After a timid start, the dynamic of brief characterisation acquired a serene gravity which, by the end of the ballet, left an impression of melancholy in Ashton’s quiet celebration of friendship.