Tale as old as time

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“Beauty and the Beast”
Birmingham Royal Ballet
Sadler’s Wells, London, October 14-16, 2014

Forget crooning crockery; it’s waltzing pigs and jazz-dancing ravens in David Bintley’s “Beauty and the Beast,” a glittery production with a green twist. Bintley’s version reframes the fairytale as a pro-conservation allegory: an arrogant prince with a heartless hunting habit is cursed into living as a beast himself among the very animals he once targeted. The eco slant calls to mind Bintley’s excellent “Still Life at the Penguin Café” in its manifest respect for the natural world, though “Beast” is less of an admonitory tale than one focusing on personal redemption.

Bintley cloaks his set in rich gothic tones: beyond the castle’s baroque doors are spindly trees and ominous swirls of fog; behind them are candlelit chambers with velvety drapes and gilded fittings. It’s a stylish and striking approach, though it does have the unfortunate effect of eclipsing the narrative, which proves somewhat feeble in the face of all the grandeur. This largely comes down to a lack of character development on Beast’s (Tyrone Singleton) part: little occurs over the course of the performance to suggest he’s deserving of Belle’s (Elisha Willis) sympathy. In fact, he spends the majority of their interactions intermittently sulking and threatening to strike her, and her eventual decision to return to him after fleeing in horror from his proposal seems more a rejection of her ghastly family than a ringing endorsement of anything he has to offer.

Still, Singleton and Willis do what they can with the flimsy plot, and there’s a lot of talent between them. The latter is passive but sturdy, with neat lines and a lovely composure, even in her darkest moments. Belle isn’t ascribed much agency, but Willis puts forward a sharp face in the few instances of autonomy her character is permitted. Meanwhile, Singleton makes a fiery Beast, swift to anger and sufficiently dynamic in his torment. His ‘heartbreak’ solo, in which he bemoans Belle’s refusal to marry him, teems with daring spins and theatrical sweeps of the arm, and he handles the drama admirably, indulging in touches of ham without going full-on corny. He’s likewise measured in the climactic transformation scene, grasping at his newly restored human form with incredulity and—finally—humility.

The chemistry between Singleton and Willis neither dazzles nor dismays. The former’s robust frame snugly encases the latter’s tiny one, and their final pas de deux makes great use of their respective strengths, scattered as it is with loving glances and stately lifts. The sparkly rays of sunlight trickling in during this scene certainly amp up the romance, though it has to be said the pair shares none of the passion evident in a previous duet between Beast and a character known as the Wild Girl (a human version of the fox he hunts in the opening scene, played by Yaoqian Shang): here the Beast tosses and twirls the spirited vixen, and she responds with rapid-fire turns and powerful six-o’clock penchés.

Shang goes on to showcase some of the show’s best choreography in her various cameos, including lightning allegro and feisty flicks of the feet. The other animals’ scenes are similarly engaging: Beasts’ hunting buddies, condemned to subsist as lowly rats, form a flashy pyramid, snapping and slinking in sync, while a chorus line of feather-clad ravens perform a jazzy little number, their kingpin (Tzu-Chao Chou) topping it off with a flash of grande pirouettes. And then there’s the ballroom scene, the second-act opener and ballet’s crowning jewel, in which wolves and birds and pigs waltz and whirl through a sumptuous golden hall. It’s a decadent and vivacious scene, and goes a long way in offsetting the drawn-out exposition weighing down the first act.

 

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