The Birmingham Royal Ballet really are on fire with their latest double bill, ‘Fire & Fury‘, listed as “a dramatic mixed bill of two ballets that evoke the politics and power of the past to explore the present”.
This powerful and evocative double bill uses the glorious benefit of hindsight to move audiences to look back at our history, exploring events of the past as a means of shaping our future. Sparks fly, flames ignite, and politics collide with power in this vivid presentation of ‘Fire & Fury’.
The first ballet, entitled ‘The King Dances’, features choreography by current Birmingham Royal Ballet Director David Bintley, with music by Stephen Montague, design by Katrina Lindsay, and lighting by Peter Mumford, and is a resplendent production. Magnificent, majestic, regal and refined, it hearkens back to the spectacular court entertainment of the 16th and 17th century, providing a wonderful celebration of, a homage to, the invention of ballet.
The piece is freely based on the 1653 ‘La Ballet de la Nuit’ (The Ballet of the Night), a ballet de cour (court ballet) lasting twelve hours, in which a fourteen year old Louis XIV danced five roles, including that of the sun god Apollo, a role for which he was described as resembling the “sun brilliant with light”, earning the young king the sobriquet, ‘The Sun King‘, and cementing the power of the monarchy, and the divine right of kings.
Although consisting of just one act, the ballet is divided into four ‘watches’, the first three each focusing on a different period of the night, the fourth, on the rising of the sun. The ballet considers the landscape of the night, and features such mythical characters as demons, werewolves and witches, in addition to more realistic characters. Louis enters with the dawning of the day, like the rising sun.
‘The King Dances’ takes ‘La Ballet de la Nuit’ as its starting point, and from this comes an elegant exploration of the journey male dancing has undertaken, from its beginnings in the court of King Louis XIV, to the ballet we know and love today, cementing Louis’ reputation as the ‘grandfather of ballet’.
The Birmingham Royal Ballet prove here, once more, that they are the kings (and queens), of dance, with their usual faultless performances. Tyrone Singleton cuts a striking figure, first as La Nuit, and then as The Devil. Imposing, manipulative, formidable, he seems to represent darkness, and evil, a foil to the light, the goodness, the purity, of Max Maslen’s delicate, dignified, King Louis, the Sun King, who bears himself with quiet strength, dignity, and the utmost nobility, the sharp, heavy movement of La Nuit contrasting the softer, gentle movements of this graceful monarch.
This contrast is echoed beautifully in Montague’s composition, performed here by the talented members of the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, which skilfully compliments Bintley’s choreography, setting the tone for these two opposites, the loud and sharper tones of the music that accompanies La Nuit, pervading the softer, melodic tones of the gentle King.
During the second watch, covering the period of nine o’clock in the evening, until midnight, Louis, our Sun, dances with Yijing Zhang’s Selene, La Lune (The Moon). Interestingly, La Lune is the only female role in the ballet, ballet being, in Louis’ day, a male-dominated sport, before Louis himself encouraged its evolution, from simply a means of propaganda, to a beautiful art form. Here, Louis is drawn to the celestial beauty of Selene, and the two engage in an enchanting pas de deux, supporting each other, balancing each other. Louis, a champion of art, and of beauty, saw, and forces us to see that, even in times of darkness, there is art, and beauty, and light, to be found.
To borrow a line from ‘Game of Thrones’, “the night is dark and full of terrors”. This certainly the case for our Louis. During the third watch, charting the hours from midnight until three o’clock in the morning, a young Louis is haunted by night terrors. He enters the stage in a white nightgown, and closes his eyes to sleep. This scene is dominated by dark mythical creatures – demons, witches, and werewolves, with Singleton now appearing as Le Diable – The Devil. They try to control Louis’ movement, to force his actions, and influence his thoughts. In his sleep, his guard lowered, the young King is manipulated, and therefore in danger. In times of darkness, dark and dangerous forces creep in and take advantage, closing in around Louis, threatening to destroy him. Here, Maslen powerfully conveys the bitter struggle of this tortured, and now vulnerable, young monarch, fighting to hold onto his power, his position, his strength, and even his sanity.
The last scene, that fourth and final watch, charting the rising of the sun, is spectacular. The stage is flooded in a dazzling gold light, emanating from a huge golden sun located at the back of the stage, and from the centre of this sun, as though born of it, Louis enters, himself dazzling, almost blindingly so, his glittering costume and crown of sun rays incredible. This Louis cements his own reputation here as The Sun King.
A vision of strength, might, and authority, Maslen’s Louis is, here, the picture, the personification, the very embodiment, of majesty. His entrance is heralded by the command of Singleton’s Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister, as he orders the audience to “regardez”, to look, at this King. Singleton’s earlier portrayals of La Nuit, and Le Diable, insignificant now – all recognise, all bow, all submit, to the might, to the strength, and to the unquestionable power, of this superior force.
The light of the King overcame, it conquered, and has now vanquished, the darkness of La Nuit (The Night), and with it, the evil forces that lurk in the darkness, now overshadowed by the King’s brilliant light.
The idea of duality seems to be very prominent in this piece, one that portrays a fight between two opposing forces, both powerful in their own right. This is a fight between light and dark, between good and evil, between the Sun King, and La Nuit. A fight for control, for dominance, for authority, and above all, for power. Although the ballet is one that is, on the whole, quite dark, the final scene shows that is with Louis alone that power truly lies – it is his light that shines through, and wins out, the landscape of the night now flooded with Louis’s eternal light, a light that, in many ways, the arts included, remains bright.
As shown on BBC4’s documentary, ‘The King Who Invented Ballet’, David Bintley states, “Louis XIV would become synonymous with the art of ballet. He was ‘The King Who Danced’, defining and popularising an art form that was the very essence of nobility, uniting politics and dance like never before, and placing ballet firmly at the heart of civilised culture. Louis was the flame that would ignite a revolution in dance, that would give birth to the ballet we know today”.
The flame that burns within this Sun King serves as a compelling prequel to the second piece of this double bill, the appropriately-entitled ‘Ignite’.
A co-production between Birmingham Royal Ballet and Dutch National Opera and Ballet, forming part of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s innovative Ballet Now Programme, and in its world premiere, ‘Ignite’ is inspired by Turner’s canvas painting, ‘The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons’, depicting the fire that broke out at the Houses of Parliament in 1834. The event, these flames, frozen in time in Turner’s painting, is reignited in this modern exploration of the conflagration.
The piece was choreographed by Juanjo Arqués, and features music by Kate Whitley, design by Tatyana Van Walsum, and lighting by Bert Dalhuysen.
Turner’s painting here becomes the turbulent backdrop for ‘Ignite’, a contemporary balletic reconstruction of the violence and beauty captured within, its stillness giving way to vivid and colourful life, resulting in a ballet that is fiery and passionate, fast-paced and thrilling.
The use of mirrors within the piece is particularly noteworthy. At the beginning of the ballet, huge rectangular mirrors line the back of the stage, before being lifted up towards the top of the stage. The reflection of the dancers, whether lone, or many, proved effective – a reflection of beauty, or an exaggeration of chaos.
Showcasing the versatility of the world-class company of dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet, when many dancers, including Brandon Lawrence and Céline Gittens as the fervent Fire, dominated the stage, their vibrant silken shirts of fiery hues – brights yellows, oranges and reds – their frantic movement gave way to scenes of organised chaos, overwhelming the stage like wildfire. The presence of so many on stage gave the impression that this fire is certainly a living thing, breathing, beating, pulsating – powerful. However, when just one, or two, dancers, entered, such as with the solos of, and duet between, accomplished dancers Mathias Dingman, as the Sky, and Delia Mathews, as the River, both representing forces opposed to fire, the chaos descended, creating an atmosphere of considerable calm, relief, and peace, capturing the stillness and serenity present with the painting.
This structured, well-constructed piece looks back, at the destruction, the devastation, present within this painting, such that has been present throughout history, however, interwoven, is this idea, this hope, that the way is paved for something new, something better – which can, and will, rise from the ashes. Bigger, better, stronger.
With a message of hope, the ballet not only looks back – it looks forwards. At the end of the piece, the dancers line up at the front of the stage, and one by one, turn to face the audience, casting off their silken shirts, and dropping them to the floor. The piece, its dancers, and therefore its audiences, turn to face the future.
The ballet is a perfect example of art generating art, a fierce testimony to the very notion of rebirth, and regrowth. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Turner’s painting is reborn in this dramatic choreographic unfolding, in which stillness, movement, colour and symbol were analysed, in order that still life might become real life.
Despite being two very different ballets, ‘The King Dances’ and ‘Ignite’ are united in their portrayal of two very strong, unstoppable, uncontrollable forces – a King, and a fire – and how these forces, in their own unique ways, pave the way for something new. In both pieces, there is a darkness, a destruction, and yet, in both, a flame flickers, and something new rises from the ashes. New foundations are laid – Louis, a patron of the arts, laid the foundations for modern ballet, whilst the fire, although disastrous, paved the way for new, and literal, architectural foundations.
From the darkness, from the ashes, something new will rise.