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The photo in Birmingham Royal Ballet's program of the symbolic hand rising out of the lake, grasping not the legendary sword, but a Kalashnikov, immediately alerted balletgoers that this tale of King Arthur was not from the Lerner and Loewe sunny Camelot mold. Once in the theater there were other signs: the front cloth featured a dusty GI Joe, gun at the ready, on a bombsite. When the ballet started, it was not a medieval court that appeared but a bunch of bundled refugees, burdened with suitcases and bags, who climbed over rubble and between scaffolding to escape the searchlights and the enemy. A couple caught by guerillas were subjected to savage attack and the girl to rape. Thus the stage was set for Arthur's story as realized by David Bintley.

Director of the BRB since 1995, Bintley has proved himself adept at choreographing narrative ballets--his climactic Edward II, based on Christopher Marlowe's play, has been an international success. Now he has chosen to tell the legend of Arthur in two full-length works. Part I had its world premiere on January 25; Part II will be performed next year when the company's home, the Birmingham Hippodrome, reopens after a 28.8-million-pound refurbishment. The choreographer says that the project was "long planned," and his research for Part I is crammed with every imaginable detail of the life and times of young Arthur, and often graphically depicted. Starting with Arthur's illicit conception by his father Uther Pendragon and Igraine, who is the beautiful wife of Gorlois, the ballet follows the young boy's growing up under magician Merlin's tutelage, and the "sword in the stone" episode. Later we have his incestuous seduction by his half-sister Morgan Le Fay, and the love triangle among Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. Add a couple of explicit and bloody birth scenes and several massacres, and you reach the final wedding tableau of Arthur and Guinevere, behind whom is projected chilling film footage of young lads being gunned down, ostensibly because they are the same age as Morgan and Arthur's son. Not a pretty picture of olde-worlde England!

Bintley has chosen not to set his new ballet in the fifth century, since he links the extensive carnage and pillage of those medieval days with the two horrific world wars at the beginning of the last century, and the senseless slaughter and struggle for power and land that still goes on today. The movie-style score by John McCabe includes a wonderful collection of unusual percussion instruments, while set designer Peter J Davison uses huge metal scaffolding throughout, which can be pushed back or forth as needed. The costumes by fashion designer Jasper Conran range from the heavy leather boots of warmongers to fishtail slinky dresses and fanciful feathered headdresses of court women; from the extraordinary skull heads and fur jerkins of red-eyed tournament contestants to the wafting gauzes of Guinevere and her nymphs in the pastoral divertissement.

Because of the extensive storytelling, the ballet was high in drama but a bit short on dance. The macho warlords, as also the tournament jousters, were rightly tough and showy, beating their breasts, leaping into the air, and clenching fists in displays of bravura. At the start of Act II, Arthur and his knights had a long dance depicting "horse-riding," but it, alas, conjured up memories of the Monty Python team, riding with little gallopy movements on their pretend horses with outstretched hands holding imaginary reins.

The many pas de deux were well crafted, each clearly depicting its true or false emotion. Bintley has a fine collection of dancers in his company who showed their dramatic strengths and balletic skills when given the opportunity. Toby Norman-Wright as Uther and Isabel McMeekan as Igraine wove their subtle, tender, yet unlawful nuptial duet, unknowingly watched over by the spooky child Morgan Le Fay (Susan King). Sergiu Pobereznic made a magnificent punk-headed Red Dragon with his taut leaps and animal attack. The talented Chi Cao danced Lancelot du Lac, moving with an inner elegance and light, soaring elevation. Arthur was performed by the perennial Peter Pan of the company, Michael O'Hare, whose steps always have a bounce and energy about them. As the raven-haired adult Morgan Le Fay, Molly Smolen forcefully set out to seduce Arthur, first with crafty flattery, then with vicious stabbing pointes, swinging her body over his and holding him in a viselike grip while they scuttled like cockroaches across the floor. The result of their coupling was seen later in a scene straight from Hammer Horror films. A ten-foot Morgan, overripe with pregnancy, swayed with birth pangs. As she bent forward, a monstrous, man-sized, bloody fetus spewed out of her skirts onto front stage, causing many a gasp from the audience. By contrast, there was a welcome glimpse of the legendary Camelot in the sweetness of Guinevere, danced by Ambra Vallo, who possesses a light, fluid style and eloquent limbs. The role of Merlin was taken by Kevin O'Hare, first seen as a grubby, wheelchair-bound old man in rags. As the magician accrued strength by gaining more and more control over Arthur, he became less ragged, left his chair, and danced with compelling vigor, especially when he took the newborn Arthur away from the new mother.

The commitment of his dancers makes the ballet's content dramatic and viable for Bintley. But it should have carried a health warning for the children and pensioners in the audience alongside me, who had come in anticipation of Excalibur, the Sword in the Stone, Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot, but who instead took home memories of the vivid, unpalatable scenes rather than of the choreography.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2000

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