Sadler's Wells hosted the world première of Embrace, choreographed by George Williamson for the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Artists of BRB in Williamson's <i>Embrace</i> © Emma Kauldhar
Artists of BRB in Williamson's Embrace
© Emma Kauldhar

Drawing from his own experience, Williamson conceives one man's journey towards self acceptance of his sexuality. The central character is danced by Brandon Lawrence. In the opening moments Lawrence is alone with knotted limbs, struggling with himself. The ensemble swirl around him – a representation perhaps of the thoughts and feelings Lawrence's character is trying to navigate internally, or of the attitudes he encounters from others.

The central pas de deux between Lawrence and Max Maslen reveals the emotional heart of this piece. It is tender and intimate, expresses burgeoning joy and tentative liaison. It's a compelling partnership, Lawrence and Maslen enable the other to be their best. It's the smallest gestures that speak the most – a hand to the face and the linking of fingers. The lifts and weight sharing are superb, but not to the detriment of the love story that unfurls. Williamson harnesses their physical prowess and the result is an eloquent and nuanced duet.

It is a courageous decision to explore homosexuality using an art form steeped in hetero-normative values and patriarchal constraints. It moulds dancers' bodies through decades of training and shapes artistic endeavour. Williamson negotiates this tension with a delicate precision and crafts something that releases the genre to say something new without losing its visual identity.

Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley in <i>Kin</i> © Emma Kaldhar
Jenna Roberts and Joseph Caley in Kin
© Emma Kaldhar
The story of friendship between Lawrence and Delia Mathews is less developed. This feels like a lost opportunity given how far Williamson progresses with the same sex partnering. There are moments when the work meanders but Williamson draws the threads together in a poignant and hopeful ending.

Embrace is preceded by Kin. In 2014, this was Alexander Whitley's first major commission for Birmingham Royal Ballet. The title speaks to kinship – the relationship between people, and kinetic – the energy we co-create. Jean-Marc Puissant's out-sized design glowers over the dancers, decidedly eerie and austere. Clad in black, the performers look sleek and cut throat. This sense of brooding pervades the work.

Phil Kline's musical landscape is complex. It interweaves melancholy with an itchy rhythmic undercurrent. Principal dancer Jenna Roberts nourishes a mournful cello with lissome arms and her rapid bourrés stir the pulsating violins. Whitley works closely with the music pulling forward its patterns into the choreography. He and Kline are artists interested in exploring the interface between contrasting styles and techniques. Like Embrace, Kin. is unmistakeably a ballet, but also gives voice to contemporary techniques.

Max Maslen and Céline Gittens in Tharp's <i>In the Upper Room</i> © Emma Kauldhar
Max Maslen and Céline Gittens in Tharp's In the Upper Room
© Emma Kauldhar
Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room is a crowd pleasing finale. Fast paced and joyous; the cast take it full throttle. We are swept up into Tharp's imagination – it demands utter immersion and the only option is to enjoy the ride. Movement erupts all over the stage vying for the audience's attention and teasing our senses. The dancers are unabashed, revelling in Tharp's intelligent and witty creation. Céline Gittens is particularly striking. Confident and pitch perfect, she embodies the mood of the Philip Glass score and nails some fiendishly difficult choreography. It is a great piece to have in the repertoire. Performed alongside Embrace and Kin. it showcases the breadth of this company's abilities. 

It is good to see Birmingham Royal Ballet in such fine fettle. This triple bill is well conceived and deftly performed. Not always flawless in its execution, but a five star programme nonetheless.