It’s been a long wait and when Birmingham Repertory Theatre director, Sean Foley, introduced the evening with just five words, “Birmingham Royal Ballet are back”, it provoked an affectionate and appreciative response from a West Midlands’ audience that has been starved of live ballet for many months.

Tyrone Singleton in City of a Thousand Trades
© Johan Persson

And so it was felicitous that the opening work on this first mixed bill to be curated by Carlos Acosta as BRB director (a year later than originally intended) was a love letter to the city of Birmingham in City of a Thousand Trades, the first of the evening’s two world premieres. Both this and the subsequent ballet, Imminent, began life as proposals to the BRB’s Ballet Now project, which continues to gather kudos as a vehicle for discovering new creative talent; and City of a Thousand Trades brought that in spades.

It also seemed like a Rambert awayday to Birmingham, since it was choreographed by Miguel Altunaga and prominently featured guest artist, Hannah Rudd, both of whom have been leading Rambert dancers for more than a decade. Altunaga is now concentrating on his choreographic future, which has always lived hand-in-glove with his dance career, starting in his Cuban homeland with Danza Contemporanea de Cuba almost 20 years ago. This was his biggest project to date with a complexity that incorporated a dozen dancers, a set involving several moveable platforms and long poles (no doubt representing the industrial heart of the city), new music (a first-ever ballet score by Mathias Coppens) and the frequent rhythmic voiceovers of Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey. Madeleine Kludje clearly played a vital dramaturgical role in helping to pull all these ideas together in a meaningful tribute to the capital of the English Midlands, and, as the associate director of the Theatre, she was also playing a pivotal role in the new and exciting partnership between BRB and the REP.

Yijing Zhang and Brandon Lawrence in City of a Thousand Trades
© Johan Persson

Coppens’ score is a fascinating hybrid of ideas, formed around a pulsing, rhythmic base of strong percussion (drummers were situated on an upstage platform), augmented by strings and electric guitars (inspired by the Birmingham rock legends of Black Sabbath) and punctuated by the arresting pace of Bailey’s inspirational poetry. The integration of the whole was never less than absorbing and it is to Altunaga’s credit that his choreography was not swallowed up by the visual and aural spectacle but retained its own indelible presence. 

The engagement of Rudd – as cover for an injured dancer – had the unfortunate side effect of creating a contrast between her natural fluidity as a ballet-trained dancer who has performed professionally at the highest level in contemporary dance and the occasional stiffness in the ballet dancers who generally perform a classical repertoire. Rudd knows how to make falling off balance look elegant and natural, whereas for ballet dancers, being off-balance is something they strive all their careers to avoid and the difference in approach was apparent.

Imminent
© Johan Persson

Daniela Cardim’s Imminent also had a strong visual appeal with April Dalton’s designs including a vast backdrop suggestive of some geological formation, aligning with the declared relevance of the work to the climate change emergency. As the performance progressed, a doorway opened up in the backdrop and it concluded with the dancers progressing through the fissure – was it to a better world, to a better understanding of the climate crisis or to oblivion? The sixteen-strong cast was led by a magnetising performance by Eilis Small in a role that seemed to have some resonance with the concept of “a chosen one”.

Chacona
© Johan Persson

The original orchestral music was composed by Paul Englishby and it presented the novel challenge of having the orchestra stationed in a studio somewhere upstairs and relayed to the theatre through monitors on either side of the stage. Although necessitated by the small size of the pit, this was a distraction to anyone sitting at the side of the theatre, as I was. Cardim hails from Brazil where both climate emergency (the destruction of the Amazon forests) and extreme politics are clearly to the fore and this was a brave attempt to sum it all up in a short ballet.

Chacona
© Johan Persson

The final work was a UK premiere of a ballet that Acosta himself had performed in: Goyo Montero’s Chacona, which was made on Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional de Sodre, in 2017. It is a fascinating and extremely challenging exercise in structure, canon and unison with strong neoclassical choreography for another group of sixteen dancers, including a quartet of BRB principals: César Morales, Momoko Hirata, Tzu-Chao Chou and Mathias Dingman. The music is led, consecutively, by solo violin (Robert Gibbs), guitar (Tom Ellis) and piano (Jonathan Higgins) arranged in a triangle pointing upstage with the piano at its apex. I can easily see why Acosta was so impressed by Montero’s absorbing and uplifting work, which was an emphatic end to a programme that was worth the wait.

***11