To begin their week-long run in London at Sadler’s Wells, the Birmingham Royal Ballet presented a diverse triple bill of works choreographed by Artistic Director and British ballet icon David Bintley CBE. The evening was constructed around his 1988 piece ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café a collection of colourful vignettes inspired by endangered animals, but the programme also included E=mc2 and Tombeaux. It was a striking production, despite announced problems with the theatre’s flying bars, and it was interesting to see Bintley and his dancers navigate the line between the classical ballet form and a contemporary structure and style.

Toby Norman-Wright as Brazilian Woolly Monkey © Photo Bill Cooper
Toby Norman-Wright as Brazilian Woolly Monkey
© Photo Bill Cooper

Opening the show was E=mc2, which unsurprisingly referenced heavily from the famous equation. Each movement in the piece drew its name from a part of the equation – energy, mass and celeritas (speed of light) – with one additional movement Manhattan Project spliced in between. Energy was the most traditional in structure and content, with a large cast of dancers onstage executing unison material all designed to bring attention to the central couple, Elisha Willis and Joseph Callet. It was followed by a smoothly sophisticated Mass, for three women and six men that was anything but heavy. Manhattan Project compressed the weight of an atomic bomb into a Japanese-inspired solo by Samara Downs, and Celritas bounced back to brightness in an ensemble movement that never took a breath. The constant shift in tone was enjoyable, and by far the most visually exciting was Mass. It found the perfect balance point between balletic content, fresh contemporary artistic ideas and athleticism that was captivating.

Following the interval was Tombeaux, a soft lament which was incredibly classical in structure and form that was often beautiful but ultimately left me unsatisfied. The soloist Momoko Hirata was at her best when the disjointed music picked up pace and she was let loose to fly across the stage, but she often felt confined and uninterested. Her counterpart Joseph Caley was a twinkling presence, but it just didn’t hold up the enormous weight of ponderous convention the piece seemed to relate. The set and costumes were exquisite, but Tombeaux was swallowed by the other two vibrant pieces in the programme.

The apex of the evening was ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café. Led through a flipbook of movements by our loveable still life penguin – yes a dancer in a full penguin suit – the audience are invited into the colourful world of some of the endangered species of 1988. The soloists, in elaborate costumes and masks parade around the stage capturing the energy and eccentricity of their animal muses, with fun and flavourful music accompaniment. Bright lights and celebration are encapsulated in each of these vignettes, so when the piece takes a sombre tone, Bintley reminds us again of the scarcity of these animals. In a triumphant display of ballet that holds relevance and meaning while still being entertaining, ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Café is a narrative piece that is full of life and a joy to experience.

David Bintley is a staple of the British Ballet world, and it is clear that his work is a continual dialogue between the influence and knowledge of classical ballet and the contemporary concepts he chooses to explore, and this triple bill at Sadler’s Wells showcased a company full of competent dancers willing to join him on this complex journey of exploration.