Earlier this month, the Royal Ballet cranked British dance back to life with an enormous gala at Covent Garden. But Thursday evening at Sadler’s Wells – which marked the return of the Royal’s touring sister company, Birmingham Royal Ballet – felt like an even bigger deal.
With the exception of a brief tryout run at Birmingham Rep last week, this was – as Sadler’s boss Alistair Spalding, introducing the evening with Carlos Acosta, pointed out – the first night of the former Royal Ballet superstar’s (hitherto Covid-trampled) tenure at the head of BRB, not to mention the reopening of Sadler’s after its longest time dark since the war. He might also have added that the evening’s highlight, Will Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky, is the first substantial new dance work on a British stage in eight months.
What was also remarkable about Thursday, compared with the Royal’s October 9 blowout, was how delightfully business-as-usual it felt. Unlike Covent Garden – which has hollowed out the stalls to make way for the full orchestra – Sadler’s has opted to reduce the number of players (here, from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia) but kept them in the pit, and left the seats alone. If you ignored your horrible mask, and the reduced audience capacity, this could have been a night from far happier, pre-Covid days.
The programme begins with the first of two pieces new to BRB: Our Waltzes, set to music from choreographer Vicente Nebrada’s native Venezuela, and a piece in which Acosta performed when he was 18. True, almost everything about it makes it feel a rather-too-close cousin of Jerome Robbins’s earlier masterpiece Dances at a Gathering. But, taken purely on its own terms, it makes for a charming and elegantly composed opener. And, unlike the Royal, which took a little time to warm up, BRB’s performers lept out of the traps with brio on first night (never mind a couple of slips), Momoko Hirata and César Morales the first among equals here.
The other BRB first is Valery Panov’s Liebestod; a short, circularly structured solo for one scantily clad male dancer that by no means outstays its welcome. And, if I’m not sure Brandon Lawrence devoured this celebration of male physicality quite as Acosta himself would have done in his pomp, it was a craftsmanlike and muscular star turn for all that.
Then comes the main course. Set to John Adams’s by turns outdoorsy and claustrophobic 1978 septet Shaker Loops, Lazuli Sky sees Tuckett tackle Covid head-on, in an often lavishly projection-bathed piece drawing on – and aiming to help us make sense of – the hopelessly unpredictable ebb and flow of the 2020 experience. Its title was inspired by the rare, incredibly expensive stone that provided the pigment for so many Renaissance paintings, and by the also hard-won, aeroplane-free blueness of the sky that we all gazed out on under lockdown.
In plain, revealing-but-neutral costumes, the 12 dancers pass poetically from solo enchainements in constrictive squares of light, to tentative interactions, panicked ensembles, grateful embraces, and on, ultimately, to a pattern of yearning collective hope. And all this against a constantly deliquescing projected backdrop of the natural world.
In the slow middle section, six of the performers, with geisha-like grace, use designer Samuel Wyer’s enormous folding skirts (maybe 10 feet in diameter) to “isolate” themselves as others scurry nimbly between them or unite in front of them, as if either in defiance of the isolators, or as emblems of their unspoken desire for unfettered freedom and intimacy. While I confess I was hoping these would be more elaborately illuminated (à la Michael Hulls), this is a very clever idea, a lyrical reimagining of an unpleasant national necessity – and perhaps an ideological division, too.
Ultimately, it is, I admit, incredibly hard to separate the joy of watching dance at Sadler’s again from the intrinsic value of the evening itself. But Tuckett’s ambition here is laudable, and the programme overall strikes me as an encouraging, properly dance-filled, topical-but-unmodish mission statement from BRB’s new leader, with the company looking more fired by returning under his aegis than cowed by lockdown. Onwards and – in true Acosta style – upwards.
Until Saturday Oct 31, and available online for seven days from Nov 1. Go to: brb.org.uk/lazuli-sky-film