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Birmingham Royal Ballet's Don Quixote marks a confident return post pandemic

Above: Emma Price and Javier Rojas as the Gypsy Couple, with Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Don Quixote; photo: Johan Persson

Future Cities Forum was delighted to be invited to a special performance of Birmingham Royal Ballet's new production of Cervantes' Don Quixote, performed this week at Sadler's Wells in London. The ballet takes the audience to the Spain of matadors and gypsy encampments as well as magical gardens and tavernas, and is a sumptuous treat post pandemic, demonstrating a confident return post Covid to the stage, for this important ballet company.

Chief Operating Officer, Anna Williams, and Company Director, Carlos Acosta, talked to Future Cities Forum during the performance about the history of the ballet, surviving financially during Covid with help from government grants, and the psychological management and journey of the company through the pandemic and new productions.

The Company like other artistic institutions was caught abruptly by the outbreak of Covid two years ago but received assistance from the DCMS. BRB not only had to think about how to look after its own building fabric during this difficult time - it moved from London to Birmingham in 1990 - but also how to help dancers maintain their fitness and morale.

Now emerging from the pandemic, the Company looks as strong as ever, with new productions in rehearsal for a lively summer/autumn season. No doubt this is due to COO Anna Wiliams, cool-headed management of the Company and Director Carlos Acosta's many years experience as a dancer and fresh approach to traditional ballet. Both talk in humble terms about their significant achievements of keeping the company alive through such a disabling pandemic.

The performance played in front of a packed audience the night Future Cities Forum attended and Anna is hoping for good box office returns this coming season, while Carlos seemed to be brimming with enthusiasm for the Company's new productions at Sadler's Wells in the autumn, which includes Uwe Scholz's 'Seventh Symphony' to Beethoven's iconic score.

The ballet - Don Quixote - was created by Marius Pepita for the branch of the Imperial Ballet in Moscow in 1869, but the story has had constant retelling by playwrites such as Shakespeare. In this new production, new designs from Olivier award-winning Tim Hatley, dazzle the audience with the effects of shimmering silver tree branches in the garden of the Dryads, where Don Quixote continues to search for 'the lady of his dreams' and by contrast with the brooding darkness of a tavern piled high with wine barrels, where Basilio pretends to stab himself in jealous despair. A traditional windmill 'grows terrifying hands' which Don Quixote mistakes for a monster and 'goes on the attack'.

Hans Vercauteren re-orchestrated the score for the ballet, which he says fully honours the music of Minkus but working with Company Director Carlos Acosta, wanted to change particular passages quite dramatically. Hans went to Birmingham to present Carlos with some ideas, taking recordings of the original orchestration and fitting them under the video footage of The Royal Ballet performance, to show him how it would sound with his choreography, Hans says to his enormous surprise, Carlos danced a few solos for him, to show him how they would look. Both recognised the need to keep the elements of joy and hope from the score by Minkus.

Director Carlos Acosta - who was born in Havana, Cuba in 1973 and trained at The National Ballet School of Havana - has danced in the ballet, Don Quixote - all over the world since the age of 16 and says he shares in the Spanish hertiage of it. However, he also says this new production benefits from re-orchestration, new elements of chorography, new colours and palette. He stresses that as a touring company, the production has to be flexible enough to fit in sometimes to smaller spaces but remain as a lush and up to date. Neverthelss the production boasts 300 costumes, 60 dancers and 58 musicians.

In a tale of chivalric adventures and crossed lovers, with Tom Rogers playing the noble gentleman, Don Quixote, there was some exceptional dancing from Momoko Kirata, playing an innkeeper's daughter, Kitri, Brandon Lewis starring as a famous matador as well as Emma Price and Javier Rojas as a gypsy couple.

Momoko has admitted that she hasn't danced any roles like Kitri before:

'She's feisty, confident and very cheeky, yet she's so in love with Basilio. She's a real person rather than a fairytale character I have to use my imagination to play....Carlos is very keen to make us look as natural as possible, especially for Act I. We don't have to stand and walk in a balletic way like the other fairytale ballets, which I think helps bring out more Spanish flavour.'

This has been an inspired and energetic re-emergence of the Birmingham Royal Ballet since lockdown and the company returns in the autumn to Sadler's Wells with 'Into the Music', featuring major orchestral scores performed live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. The UK premiere of Uwe Scholz's 'Seventh Symphony', to Beethoven's iconic score. with 32 dancers on stage, is performed alongside Jiri Kylian's 'Forgotten Land' to the music of Benjamin Britten. The programme also features the world premiere of 'Hotel', a new ballet by Morgann Runacre-Temple to a new score by Mikael Karlsson. The Christmas season sees the ballet company perform 'The Nutcracker' at the Royal Albert Hall.

COO Anna Williams will be speaking at Future Cities Forum's levelling up event this coming week at The Exchange in Birmingham about the company's new dance production, 'On Your Marks' to celebrate the city's Commonwealth Games due to be held this July, and the future for Birmingham Royal Ballet, as a major element in the regeneration of culture post Covid.

Early in the pandemic, Anna spoke to Future Cities Forum about the importance of connecting with diverse communities wihin the city post Covid -19:

'One of the things I am most concerned about is the empty city thinking is how will we live again in cities, and how do we find the public confidence to enjoy them....we are planning for live events to reconnect the city with culture...but there are lots of issues about putting live performance on the streets - on security, flat floor for dances etc, to have ballet on the high street.'

Above: Momoko Hirata as Kitri, with Yu Kurihara as Mercedes, Alexander Yap as Espada and Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Don Quixote; photo: Johan Persson


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