Penguin Café

Reviewer's Rating

Dancing penguins, Morris men, and galactic mechanics – a classic night of British ballet.

I highly recommend Birmingham Royal Ballet’s most recent triptych. Each piece is distinctive and enjoyable, the performance as a whole showcasing David Bintley’s exquisite choreography.

The first act is a physics lesson – a balletic interpretation of Einsteinian relativity. In four movements we are shown the meaning, and consequences, of E=mc2. The first, Energy, is a depiction of the early universe from Big Bang to molecular formation. We are also treated to a demonstration of the most fundamental physical concept that energy may be neither created not destroyed, merely changed from one form to another. The orchestra bounces themes between different sections, mutable yet indestructible.

The second movement, Mass, is eerily beautiful. Planets dance round stars in the vastemptiness of space. There are also some well-thought lighting effects making the action occur in mid-air which, given the subject matter, is remarkably elegant.

There follows a shocking reminder of the power of atomic physics. With terrifying simplicity, a tremendously loud and inescapable noise encompasses the auditorium, completely overwhelming a single Geisha. Einstein never forgave himself for the horrors unleashed by his brilliant theory.

Finally “Celeritas”, the speed of light. Light is the purest form of energy, and Bintley enthusiastically conveys this. This must be one of the most exhausting pieces for any dancer. With punchy rhythms we are delivered a final lecture on quantum mechanics and wave-particle duality – that light can be either a particle or a wave. What a blinder!

Tombeaux is part biography, part tribute, all open-letter to Sir Frederick Ashton. The lead male (Joseph Caley) represents Bintley himself, dancing with the spirit of classical ballet (Momoko Hirata). As one might expect, much of the choreography is consciously Ashton-esque. There are many very tricky technical corners for the dancers to negotiate, and it was hugely impressive to see them perform without a hitch and with calm, reserved confidence and grace. This is a dancer’s dance.

The music is an excellent choice, being a touchingly personal message from Walton to Hindemith. The orchestra were a touch rough around the edges, but it’s not the easiest score to play and I’m nitpicking a bit. Somewhat incredibly, Jasper Conran is the designer, presenting us with a marvellously iridescent green Roman garden back-drop and sumptuous blue velvet tutus.

“Still Life” at the Penguine Café is the last piece of the evening, and it is tremendous, unabashed fun. The music is a good orchestration of various extracts recorded by the Penguin Café Orchestra. Founded by Simon Jeffes, their work is wonderfully experimental while staying safely on the pop side of harmony. There is something here for everyone and if you haven’t discovered them yet, you have a treat in store.

I’m not sure one can really say one’s seen ballet until one’s seen three penguin (or Great Auk) waiters serve wine in a ballroom. Between them, the astonishingly named Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk Flea, and a psychedelic Brazilian Woolly Monkey dancing disco, one is left with a joyous image of the variety our world offers. For some reason, Morris men also make an appearance.

The piece is a cautionary tale aimed at humanity, reminding us of our responsibility to look after the world. This could have been a bit heavy – humans are, after all, capable of astonishing acts of barbaric stupidity. Yet the piece takes a much more positive approach, ending with the animals in the arc – we are their guardians and we must not forget it.

Tellingly, all the pieces have inventive yet refined choreography which the dancers clearly relish. That must be why they’re all so good.

Five star family fun. There is indubitably still life at the Penguin Café.

*  Birmingham Royal Ballet returns with two contrasting evenings:

classic ballet The Sleeping Beauty and three short works from Artistic Director David Bintley