Three of a Kind was a delightful surprise, showcasing the lighter sides of a ballet company without sacrificing technique or passion. Birmingham Royal Ballet traveled back in time and prepared an evening of three different works: Card Games by John Cranko, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue by George Balanchine and Elite Syncopation by Kenneth MacMillan. The Birmingham Hippodrome was full of people ready to enjoy an evening of dance by a leading ballet company in the West Midlands.

Jamie Bond as the Joker with artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet © Roy Smiljanic
Jamie Bond as the Joker with artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
© Roy Smiljanic

The evening opened with Cranko's Card Game, a "three deals" ballet that is only one act but nevertheless complete and incredibly funny in every way possible. The movement was linear, rhythmical, repetitive and broken by quirky, playful gestures and whimsical characters. Cranko really understands male bodies, choreography and crafting movement for men. The group pieces were inventive and maintained a great balance between strong, rigorous, sweet and gestural. The choreography had a significant comedic aspect that was fed by dancers climbing over and under one another's legs, and hand-clapping transitions. However, this comedy certainly did not overcloud the sheer strength and stamina required by the dancers; the unitards displayed their muscles and athletic bodies beautifully. A Cranko ballet always includes both theatre and dancing, and requires a harmony between the two. The Joker, played by Jamie Bond, found this balance. Overall, Card Game had a Pee-wee Herman quality with rare yet attractive moments. When does one get to see a ballerina wearing pointe shoes crouched on the ground in a somersault position? Hardly ever, except in a Cranko ballet.

Céline Gittens as Striptease Girl © Bill Cooper
Céline Gittens as Striptease Girl
© Bill Cooper

Continuing with the theme of the evening – an atypical choice of works – Slaughter on Tenth Avenue fit the mold. Originally conceived as a finale for the Rodger's and Harts Broadway musical On your Toes (1936), the ballet became a stand alone piece when Balanchine chose to revive Slaughter on Tenth Avenue for Suzanne Farrell in the 1960's. The piece was a full length ballet within a full length musical; a story within a story that eventually became known as Balanchine's popular one-act ballet. The house lights dim and the stage reveals a scrim with what looks like the New York skyline, except that the sky-scrappers are the shape of legs. Then in walk gangsters dressed in 1930's Al Capone-esque zoot suits. We learn the plot – a Russian danseur who hires a gangster to kill his ex-lover – and proceed to watch how it unravels. Balanchine's movement is counter-intuitive of how ballet dancer is supposed to move. The Hoofer (Tyrone Singleton) wears tap shoes, he is bent over rather than erect, yet he still defies gravity with his jumps and leaps. The female role is also atypical. We see the Striptease girl (Céline Gittens) in a classy, black, tight fishnet unitard. The flexibility and ease of Gittens' leg extensions are mesmerizing; its as if her legs are longer than the Empire State building is tall. The Company dancers are flirty and engaging in a fun and playful manner. Their rhythmical body isolations and pendular hip movements, swaying to a jazzy score, encourage us to relish what was happening onstage.

Nao Sakuma in Stoptime Rag © Bill Cooper
Nao Sakuma in Stoptime Rag
© Bill Cooper

To finish the evening, we proceed with the longer of the three ballets, Elite Syncopations (1974) by Kenneth MacMillan. This ballet is the exact opposite of Manon, his perhaps better known piece, which he choreographed during his time at the Royal Opera House. Light, fluffy and at times overindulgent, there were multiple scenes yet no real plot. It begins on a bare stage reminding me of a Social Club where live Ragtime music – in this case led by Piano Conductor Jonathan Higgins – plays. The dancers are scattered on stage, some sitting, others standing, carefree and waiting for their opportunity to showcase their talent. Elite Syncopations is a dance hall competition, with numerous duets and group pieces danced to syncopated melodies. Although the ballet was different and lively, some of the pieces dragged a bit. A delightful duo and a real highlight of the evening were James Barton and Yvette Knights in the The Alaskan Rag sequence. Filled with comical loco-motor steps, incredibly funny partnering and believable characters and chemistry, these two stole the show. Barton, in particular, deserves to be applauded for his convincing acting and beautiful dancing. He is a powerhouse of a dancer and was an audience favorite.

In short, if you have not seen Birmingham Royal Ballet in some time, this may be the reintroduction you need. Three of a Kind highlights the Company’s versatility and skillfulness – the evening has something for everyone. Whether it be a moving deck of cards, a dancing joker, a 1930's gangster or a Big Band social gathering, the non-standard works are enjoyable, light and allow one to travel back in time to an era of Ziegfeld Follies or Ragtime Mississippi Delta gatherings.

****1