Celebrating 20 years as Director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley brings his company to London for three nights (and an afternoon!) of seedy sex and drunken debauchery at the hands of Fate. Carmina burana was his first creation as Director and – judging by a sold out Coliseum – is as popular with audiences now as it was in 1995, even if its excesses now seem a little tame. Preceded by the cool blues and sweeping patterns of Balanchine’s Serenade, a paean to feminine elegance, this programme demonstrates the versatility of Bintley’s company.

Samara Downs (Fortuna) and Iain Mackay (Third Seminarian) © Bill Cooper
Samara Downs (Fortuna) and Iain Mackay (Third Seminarian)
© Bill Cooper

Love it or loathe it, the wheel of fortune that is Carl Orff’s Carmina burana continues to spin. The cantata is based on 24 poems from the medieval collection Codex Buranus, written in Latin, Middle High German, French and Provençal dialect. They are largely drinking songs, extolling the joys of feasting, gambling and lust, bound by fate’s fickle finger. Usually performed as a concert work, Orff originally conceived it for the stage, so Bintley’s use of the score as a ballet is highly apt. Fate takes the form of a blindfolded temptress (Fortuna) in little black dress and stilettos. Giant crosses drop from the flies to greet the appearance of seven seminarians, three of whom discard their dog collars and give in to temptation.

Our first trainee priest to fall from grace was the lithe Jamie Bond, lured by four pony-tailed blondes in a club, but ultimately rejected. The choreography is light and witty, with pregnant maidens (symbols of fertility in Orff’s “Spring”) jostling with eager lads in an athletic game of musical chairs.

Gluttony reigns in the next scene, where the splendidly athletic Mathias Dingman, pursued by invisible demons, arrives “In the Tavern”. There, he joins five supersized diners in attempting to devour the long-legged roast swan of Jenna Roberts. Dressed as a 1920s show girl, fanning white feathers, and varying up-and-over leg crosses, Roberts was ravenously seductive. Dingman then fell prey to drink, ending up in a rhythmic, but safe, nightclub brawl.

<i>Carmina burana</i>: Jenna Roberts as the Roast Swan © Bill Cooper
Carmina burana: Jenna Roberts as the Roast Swan
© Bill Cooper

Carnal desire was the temptation for our third seminarian, Iain Mackay. Intrigued by a prostitute in a skimpy scarlet dress, Mackay gradually loses his inhibitions and strips to his Calvin Kleins. His sultry temptress draws him into a bout of physical challenges; this “Court of Love” is a cynical arena, where there’s only one winner: woman. Mackay’s nemesis is none other than Fortuna herself, Samara Downs, mesmeric in her furious opening solo, set to the most famous section of Orff’s score. However, the impact of the vibrant final tableau – set to the same music, with the giant crosses now bloodstained before a blazing wheel of fortune – was undermined, Downs failing to overwhelm her victim.

Artists of the Birningham Royal Ballet © Bill Cooper
Artists of the Birningham Royal Ballet
© Bill Cooper

Choral contributions were strong, with Ex Cathedra squeezed into the boxes either side of the stage, though this led to some understandable slips in co-ordination with the pit. Baritone William Dazeley bore the brunt of the solo work nobly, while Madeleine Pierard’s luminous soprano impressed. Jeremy Budd’s swan was suitably stretched by Orff’s (deliberately) high tessitura, to comic effect. Paul Murphy drew punchy playing from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia in Orff’s percussion-heavy score.

Tyrone Singleton and Momoko Hirata in <i>Serenade</i> © Bill Cooper
Tyrone Singleton and Momoko Hirata in Serenade
© Bill Cooper
Before the interval, it was strings alone for the lilting Serenade, affectionately played under the baton of Philip Ellis. Balanchine’s 1934 ballet - his first to be created in America - is full of lyrical phrasing. The master creates beautiful sequences of images, aided by the powder blue tulle skirts, which flutter with each flick of a leg. The corps de ballet hold outstretched arms, shielding their eyes from the moonlight – an oft-repeated ‘still’, but effective, matching the descending motif in each movement of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Despite its abstract nature, it is possible to detect a narrative, centring on the ballerina who turns up late for class at the end of the first movement. Here, the performance was weaker, Elisha Willis’ emotionless arrival failing to establish a sense of character. The two other female soloists were far stronger; Momoka Hirata’s buoyancy and crisp attack was a delight, while Céline Gittens grew in character through the performance, hair loosened in the final scene, revealing beautiful fluidity of movement and expressive limbs, as well as a stunning arabesque line extended lingeringly after the arduous, yet here perfect promenade supported at the dancer's thigh.  Occasional struggles with the fleeting speed of Balanchine's choreography impeded precision, but the tender final scene – Balanchine switches the order of Tchaikovsky’s final two movements to end with the “Elegy” – pricked the eyes.