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Royal Ballet, Barbican Theatre, London, June 15-20, 1998; Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham Hippodrome, Birmingham, England, June 3-7, 1998.

BARBICAN THEATRE, LONDON JUNE 15-20, 1998 BIRMINGHAM ROYAL BALLET BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME, BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND JUNE 3-7, 1998 REVIEWED BY JANN PARRY

Dame Ninette de Valois's one-hundredth birthday on June 6 was celebrated with special performances by the three institutions she founded: the Royal Ballet School and the two Royal Ballet companies, one based in London, the other relocated (since 1990)to Birmingham. Dame Ninette was in fine form at her birthday party at the school but opted not to attend the theater performances.

Birmingham Royal Ballet had the advantage of appearing in its own large theater in the center of Birmingham, whereas the Royal Ballet is homeless until the Covent Garden opera house reopens at the end of 1999. Because of budget constraints, the London company's guest season at the small Barbican Theatre was restricted to one week, with a modest gala to honor Madam, as de Valois is known to the ballet world. Friends and former colleagues were invited to the gala, which meant that few seats were available for loyal fans from the company's early days.

For the gala only, dancers from both companies performed excerpts from de Valois's ballets: the program included the Royal Ballet's revival of her 1935 The Rake's Progress, and Frederick Ashton's Birthday Offering (1956). The de Valois divertissements ranged from Job (1931), with Irek Mukhamedov a powerful Satan, to a 1980 bravura solo, Every Goose Can, originally for Wayne Sleep, danced by fleet-footed Matthew Dibble. The selections gave some idea of the range of her work, thanks to the retentive memories of two of her former dancers, Jean Bedells and Pamela May.

Bedells also succeeded in reconstructing a lost comedy ballet, The Prospect Before Us, which de Valois had created in 1940 to exploit the dramatic talents of Robert Helpmann. David Bintley, artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, staged Prospect for his company, supplying linking bits of choreography that had eluded Bedells and her colleagues. Original cast members who traveled to Birmingham for the revival premiere confirmed that he had caught the essence of Madam's style. The delighted response of the audience was an assurance that the ballet is back to stay.

Prospect is based on eighteenth-century drawings and caricatures by Sir Thomas Rowlandson, with music by an English composer of the period, William Boyce. The ballet tells the (historically true) story of how a troupe of dancers is transferred between London theaters as debts pile up and buildings burn down. Hard-pressed theater manager Mr. O'Reilly (Helpmann's role) finally takes to drink, abandoning the dancers to his rival. Birmingham Royal Ballet's Michael O'Hare was infectiously gleeful as the inebriated O'Reilly; Joseph Cipolla was absurdly dignified as Monsieur Didelot, the leading man.

Bintley paid his own tribute to Madam in the Birmingham program with a ballet dedicated to her, The Protecting Veil (to music of the same name by John Tavener). Like de Valois in her danced parable, Job, he has drawn on biblical tales and imagery, trying to find a physical language to convey spiritual belief. Five women represent aspects of Mary, mother of Jesus, from girlhood to godliness. The veil of the title takes on different uses: virginal headdress, swaddling cloth, shroud.

The ballet, like the music, is deeply felt but long-drawn-out. The women are on pointe, though the emotionally expressive movement and symbolic use of props are close to Graham's modernist aesthetic. Bintley refers to the work as a "lyrical icon," its stylized poses and designs recalling Russian icons; it is his way of acknowledging the religious faith he shares with de Valois and his respect for the creative tradition in which they have both played a part.
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Title Annotation:companies' tribute to Dame Ninette de Valois on her 100th birthday
Author:Parry, Jann
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Words:606
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