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Penguin Cafe - Birmingham Royal Ballet - Review

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Dance triple bill shines with science and penguins
Every so often, Birmingham Royal Ballet(BRB) puts on a show that features a trio of short dances, rather than one long production.

The advantage of seeing these triple bills is that they not only give the audience a chance to sample more alternative types of dance than the most popular pieces, but also give the ballet company an opportunity to push the boundaries a little further with more experimental performances.

Dazzling choreography to show the speed of light in BRB's triple bill

This time around, the latest BRB tour includes three very contrasting dances - E=mc squared; Tombeaux and Still Life at the Penguin Cafe.

Catching the first night at Birmingham Hippodrome, the variety of content in this production means that there will be something to suit most tastes, whether its classical ballet, modern dance or a routine mixed with a dose of cheeky fun.

The award-winning trio were picked as they are among the most innovative of works by famed BRB choreographer David Bintley from over the past 25 years, but they still feel as fresh and vibrant as when first performed.

The opening dance, E=mc squared, is the most striking in terms of pushing boundaries. Based on Einstein's scientific formula, it cleverly breaks down each part of the world's most famous equation into a series of dances typifying the meaning.

So, first of all there is E for Energy, when the stage becomes a whirl of frenetic activity. Bodies everywhere, syncopating in constant movement; dancers who almost appear to be speed skating; and just a few strands of light shining across them all on a completely black stage.

A scene from E=MC squared. Part of a trio of delights offered in the latest Birmingham Royal Ballet tour.

Feeling almost tired from all the movement, there's time to catch your breath as the scene moves on to M for Mass, focussing on the slower, weightier elements. Ballerinas are lifted up delicately with gravity bringing them down far more gracefully and visually than what Einstein could ever have imagined. Their motion is almost like peaks and troughs on a scientific wave machine.

At this point, there is an interruption to the "equation of dance" with probably the most avant garde section of the night. This brief piece from The Manhattan Project features a dancer dressed as a geisha, all in white with a red fan in front of a glowing red background. While her movements are gentle the accompanying soundtrack is a constant deep drilling bass. It's striking and will stay with you long after you leave the auditorium.

Back to the science and C squared (the C for Celeritas meaning speed) is adapted to signify the speed of light. Rows of spotlights flood the stage as the dancers bounce so happily to the delightful score that it is almost addictive.

The wonderful choreography is so spot on that is like watching light bouncing off a mirror and the leads in this, Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman are delightfully cute (and springy).

Tombeaux is the second of the trio and much more classical in style.

This was extremely personal to Bintley. He created this work in 1993 and while on the surface it seems to be about a funeral, in reality it symbolises the choreographer's thoughts on the death of British ballet as he wanted it to be and is a product of all his frustrations.

Sombre scenes in Tombeaux

That bitterness is quite clear to see in this extremely dark and melancholy section, but ballerina Nao Sakuma brings joy through her exceptional dancing to William Walton's Variations on a Theme.

After the sombre mood of Tombeaux, a finale of the most vibrant production in this trio is a perfect pick me up.

Still Life at the Penguin Cafe is an enthralling, eye-catching section of the show featuring dancing penguins, zebras, and even a particularly soulful Brazilian Wooly Monkey.

From the moment the light-footed penguin waiters skedaddle on to stage to the breezy, optimistic tunes of Simon Jeffes, I defy anyone to not succumb to this routine.

There are obvious likenesses to the penguins who danced with Julie Andrews' Mary Poppins in the famous children's film, but these penguins are actually the creature's descendants, The Great Auk, which are now extinct.

A dancing penguin from Still Life at the Penguin Cafe

There's also a sassy Utah Longhorn Ram in chic 1930s dress, who does a 'Fred and Ginger' type turn of the dancefloor with a dashing Iain Mackay, looking debonair in full coat and tails. It's Strictly Come Dancing meets animal hospital, but in the best kind of way.

Meanwhile, the female zebras wonderfully pose like fashion models as they graze on an African meadow.

Despite the light-heartedness of it all, there is, as always with Bintley's work, a more complex undercurrent, which in this case is the issue of extinction. There's plenty of fun, but be warned, the final scene left me with a lump in my throat.

The Penguin Cafe triple bill will also be performed at:
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London - October 15-16, 2013
Theatre Royal Plymouth - October 29-30, 2013

The performance is 2h 45mins long including two 25mins intervals. Tickets cost from £13.

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London - or call 08444 124 300.

Theatre Royal Plymouth, Plymouth
or call 01752 267222.
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Why? See world class ballet
When: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London - October 15-16 and Theatre Royal Plymouth - October 29-30
Phone: 0121 245 3500
Where: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London and Theatre Royal, Plymouth
Cost: From £13
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