When Carlos Acosta was named artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet in January of this year, he announced ambitious plans for his inaugural season, but the pandemic swiftly derailed these. Lazuli Sky, recently performed for live audiences in Birmingham and London, is his first commission to come to fruition, and while the programme has been scaled down from its original incarnation — with fewer dancers, musicians and audience members — it lives up to the panache of the company’s usual mixed bills and even manages to pull off a world première by Will Tuckett, a lodestar of contemporary British ballet.
The titular work, Lazuli Sky, is Tuckett’s ode to nature’s glorious blues, namely the penetrating azure of the lapis lazuli stone, which Da Vinci used as a guiding hue for his skies. With its tranquil mood and silky, geometric phrases, the ballet is an abstract departure from Tuckett’s usual narrative fare as well as from the loud showpieces, such as The King Dances, of David Bintley’s tenure at BRB’s helm. There are springing leaps, thoughtful couplings, scenic projections, all pulsing with positive energy. Arranged against the galloping strings of John Adams’s Shaker Loops, the choreography radiates serenity, capturing the majestic repose of the natural world.
The work introduces gentle drama with giant origami skirts that unfold like sails and a lighting design tinged with hazy indigos and cobalts. The 12 dancers are stars twinkling in the firmament, birds chasing a tailwind. It might be because of all the time that they spent away from the stage, but there’s a whiff of restraint to their performance, as if the cast is wary of being too rough with this precious piece of live theatre. They have its technical components down pat; it would be nice to see them approach its sentiments with more abandon.
Two new company acquisitions round off the bill. Our Waltzes by the Venezuelan dancemaker Vicente Nebrada fashions a pastel kaleidoscope out of five waltzing couples, the dancers gliding through dainty patterns flecked with trim lifts and picture-perfect arabesques. It’s very pretty and very dancerly, like the centre-floor work you long to be assigned in a ballet class — a sensibility aided by the on-stage pianist, who gamely sees the dancers through their variations. Again, there’s no emotional risk-taking here, though unlike Lazuli Sky, the cast isn’t reaching towards mystic devotion; the tidiness is part and parcel of the show. That’s not to say there isn’t depth to their manoeuvres, particularly the duets. One couple ends their cavorting on the floor, clasped in a sensational embrace; another sees Tyrone Singleton wake Samara Downs from a stupor, restoring her to life as he whisks her across the stage.
Valery Panov’s Liebestod is the bill’s boldest choice, carried on the shoulders of Brandon Lawrence, who performs the solo with a conviction that recalls Acosta himself, especially his assured theatricality. There’s a creaturely evolution to the piece, a sense of animal awakening as Lawrence matures from a crouched newborn who shrinks from the light to a long-legged, barrel-leaping virtuoso. He greets the crescendo of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde finale with a sky-high scissor leap, a look of wonder etched on his face as he explores his new range of motion.
Ballet is back, the programme makes a point to tell us, but for these dancers it was only the audiences who disappeared. In some ways, BRB’s direction seems clearer than ever. Acosta is here to showcase beauty in a world riven with pain, to gift us dance that’s pleasing, animated and deftly constructed. The window for live performances has now closed again, but the pay-per-view digital broadcasts introduced alongside this production have real potential as an enduring feature, bringing this troupe to ever wider crowds.
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