The Autumn season of the Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome began last night with the Penguin Cafe mixed programme, an eclectic collection of three short ballets headlined by the sublime ‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe. The triple hander showed the diversity of ballet, from the Ragtime dancing of Elite Syncopations, to the Morris dancing of ‘Penguin Cafe’, right through to the paired back, beautiful simplicity of Concerto.
A bare stage, plain rehearsal style costumes and the stirring music of Shostakovich, Concerto is a ballet that definitely has two moods. The first and third act are upbeat and lively, but it is the second act dance that stays in the memory, a lucid, sensuous pas de deux that, on this occasion, was performed to perfection by Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton.
‘Still Life’ at the Penguin Cafe
There is one word that perfectly sums up ‘Penguin Cafe’ and that is enchanting. But although the story raises smile after smile through the characterisation of the endangered species, it also has a series message about the conservation of these disappearing animals. The wonderful opening scene features the penguin of the title, in actual fact the know extinct The Great Auk, danced by the wonderful Ruth Brill in ‘Air A Danser’, this is an elegant dance that brings to mind 1930s tea dances, particularly with the bias cut evening gowns of the female dancers.
We then see the humour of the wonderfully loveable Texas Kangeroo Rat (Tzu-Chao Chou), struggling to get comfortable as he tries to sleep and delighting the audience with his incessant scratching. It is a fine performance by Tzu-Chao Chou, filled with warmth and funny moments. The scratching leads neatly to fantastically named Humboldt’s Hig-Nosed Skunk Flea, danced with light hearted finesse by Laura Day, and given exquisite, and hilarious support by five morris dancers, showing how ‘Penguin Cafe’ makes the surreal something really special.
But as light hearted as the early scenes are, there are darker moments to this ballet. Tyrone Singleton again sizzles as the Southern Cape Zebra, proud and strutting but hunted down, all the while surrounded by women in zebra striped dresses who seem to ignore what is happening.
Penguin Cafe is wonderful in that the music remains upbeat right until the end, which is oblique and open to interpretation. Is the storm that comes made up of acid rain? Is the final scene of animals on the ark an premonition of our future?
Elite Syncopations is a delight, a ballet that also brings the Royal Ballet Sinfonia onto the stage and into costume. Using the music of Ragtime, notably that of Scott Joplin, Elite Syncopations is a one act composition, using a dance competition as the premise for showcasing a range of wonderful dance routines that both inspire and amuse.
The dance competition allows us to enjoy a range of soloists, dancing whilst the rest of the troop sit on stage and watch, almost like they are sizing up the competition. I loved the Stoptime Rag, with Jenna Roberts dancing the role almost like a drum majorette, complete with a costume that brings to mind the stars and stripes. The Alaskan Rag is hilarious, with the mismatched coupling of Yvette Knight and Tzu-Chao Chau bringing laughter to the theatre and showing just how funny ballet can be.
This is a bright and vibrant ballet, full of joyful moments, and yet at times it also brings to mind the dance floor desperation of ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’, also centred around a dance competition, also taking place around the time Joplin’s ragtime music was in vogue.
The Penguin Cafe Mixed Programme is a brilliant way to enjoy a diverse and colourful range of ballets.
Birmingham Royal Ballet – Penguin Cafe Mixed Programme
A triple bill with joyous dancing, ragtime music and animals sheltering from a storm!
Thu 28 – Sat 30 Sep, Click here for ticket information.