Last Updated on November 6, 2021
Heavy Metal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells
I’ve recently read Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta’s biography. It tells of his extraordinary journey from poverty to being one of the great stars of world ballet and is a great read. So, it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to review the opening night of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill Curated by Carlos at Sadler’s Wells. Acosta became the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2020 and before that danced with the English National Ballet, National Ballet of Cuba, Houston Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre. As his co-star, the veteran Alessandra Ferri, wryly notes in the programme Acosta is a great catch for Birmingham.
The show opens with a substantial new one-act abstract ballet, City of a Thousand Trades, for once an ambitious and worthwhile piece of civic art created by Cuban choreographer Miguel Altunaga and co-directed with Madeleine Kludje. How would a ballet celebrating Birmingham’s industrial and cultural heritage be received by a London audience? Actually, surprisingly well!
The first thing we see is Guilia Scrimieri’s striking, kinetic set with its abstract wooden structures and poles representing the factories and chimneys of the city’s industrial past. The dancers take their place on stage to an underscore of a bleak, howling electronic wind (think the Bullring on a Friday night…). There is a voiceover from Casey Bailey, Birmingham Poet Laureate, emphasising the notion of home. To the sound of hammering on anvil and industrial drums, we see the two percussionists raised up high behind the dancers, who are concurrently making muscular, angular moves. They are industrial heroes and not downtrodden workers – let’s not forget the Soviet influence on Acosta’s Cuban heritage! We hear the voices of immigrants talking about their initial loneliness in the city as solo dancers play out their narratives.
The music, composed by Mathias Coppens and brilliantly performed live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia and their conductor Koen Kessels, takes its inspiration from the city, the birthplace of Heavy Metal (think Ozzy Osborne and Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi). The score effectively interlaces elegiac strings accompanying the dancer’s slow flowing movements and a romantic pas de deux with the industrial and ethnic percussion and finally the distorted lead guitar coming together with the percussion and strings. The voiceover says “To gain something you have to be brave enough to risk everything” and in a sense that is what Birmingham is doing with this piece, with Acosta and the company. This poetic energetic piece with its hints of Bollywood in the ensemble work has bags of vitality and deserves to be seen again.
Brazilian/British choreographer Daniela Cardim has recently created an optimistic, abstract piece called Imminent, the second dance in the triple bill, influenced by climate change, the rise of political extremism and COVID. It focuses on the conception of a “tipping point” – “Imminent invites us to recognise that a window of opportunity is now calling upon us. There is hope – and it is important to let go of the past, to take action and move boldly on”. The work celebrates the positivity of collective action and is built around composer Paul Englishby’s pastoral, romantic score with a hint of Bernstein’s rhythmic energy to give it some edge. Designer April Dalton has dressed the dancers in soft, flowing silk chemises contrasting with an unforgivingly hard granite backdrop.
Imminent opens with the dancers on the floor, reaching and stretching and rising up with the music. We are clearly in a golden age as reflected in the lighting as the ensemble rather gloriously pirouettes together. A strong classical ballet influence in both the form and choreography comes through as the music shifts to a playful waltz time and then a more physical 6/8 leading to a sense of uncertainty and then into a more primal state of fear. A huge door opens up in the granite and gradually the couples move through it into a more hopeful and collective future.
The highlight of the evening’s performance comes in its thrilling conclusion with a company premiere of Goyo Montero’s Chacona. The choreographer says “It’s like a living organism, he says, perhaps a flock of birds or a shoal of fish, something with a heightened state of mind as a group but also full of individual personalities.” It features the world premiere of a new pas de deux created for Carlos Acosta himself, and Italian dancer Alessandra Ferri, a former Principal of The Royal Ballet. The music, by J.S. Bach – the Chorale Prelude No.3 (arranged by Ferruccio Busoni) and the Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D Minor – is thrillingly performed live on stage by Jonathan Higgins (piano), Tom Ellis (classical guitar) and Robert Gibbs (violin) with the instruments playing solo and then coming together for the final section.
The design is an exercise in chiaroscuro with 16 dancers dressed in black enveloped in shadow, light and smoke. The dancers create figures built on lines, lines that cross and melt into one another like those in the music’s weaving counterpoint. Acosta and Ferri are entangled, taking possession of each other. Ferri glides effortlessly on pointe and then is lifted high by Acosta who still looks incredible combining tremendous strength and physicality with a sensual grace.
As the solo violin takes over the dancers glide into strikingly geometric poses and when the rhythmic density of the music intensifies the speed of the choreography seems to double. When the solo guitar accompanies Acosta and Ferri, the two principals are locked together then separating then recoupling as the lighting creates a chequerboard effect. The other couples reenter spinning in and out of passionate embraces. The piano comes back in with arpeggios building the intensity of the dance. All the musicians come together as the dancers reassert themselves bringing the piece to a satisfying conclusion.
Carlos Acosta is leading from the front at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. He brings not only a wealth of talent and experience but also an individual blend of cultures that are clearly having an impact in Birmingham. He also has that ineffable characteristic, star quality and for that alone it is worth begging, borrowing or stealing a ticket for these few evenings at Sadler’s Wells.
Curated by Carlos at Sadler’s Wells
Playing 4-6 November
Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN
Looking for something different? We also recommend Giselle from the Royal Ballet, showing at the Royal Opera House