“Could we trade tradition for transformation?” asks poet Casey Bailey in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s latest premiere, City of a Thousand Trades. BRB’s artistic director Carlos Acosta is not about to trash tradition but he definitely has transformation in mind as he presents his first programme of new commissions for the company.
Choreographed by Cuban Miguel Altunaga (best known as a contemporary dancer with Rambert), City of a Thousand Trades was trailed as a love letter to Birmingham’s industrial heritage. On stage, the dancers manoeuvre themselves alongside wooden boxes and poles to the clang and clunk of percussionists on a mezzanine above the stage. You fear it’s going to veer into Stomp territory, but it’s much more interesting than that. Really, this is a piece about the immigrants who build our cities, in every sense, and the casting showcases what a multicultural company BRB is.
There are glimpses of individual dancers: the grace and elevation of Brandon Lawrence, the gossamer spins of apprentice Darel Pérez, the snaking body of Yijing Zhang, and guest dancer Hannah Rudd (also ex-Rambert), expressive from fingertips to toes. The petite Rudd has a gorgeous duet with tall Tyrone Singleton, fluent with each other in coils and curls, yet still there’s restlessness to the movement, of people and places on the move. They touch on the loneliness of arrival, cramped living conditions, but community builds and, in a nod to heavy metal’s roots in the region, out comes the electric guitar (the score is by Mathias Coppens). Everyone rocks out – with balletic flourish – it all goes a bit Hofesh Shechter and they’re bonded in sweat.
This is Altunaga’s biggest commission yet, and the same goes for Daniela Cardim, the London-based Brazilian who made the night’s other world premiere, Imminent, proving Acosta’s dedication to nurturing new voices. Cardim’s title refers to an unstoppable sense of change (the climate crisis is the obvious one: the set looks like a jagged ice sheet). The score by film and TV composer Paul Englishby immediately unleashes this feeling in ever rising swells that ride the crest, never quite peaking.
But the great breakers of sound are at odds with what’s on stage, which is like gentle waves lapping the shore. There are a few times when there’s an imbalance between dance and music – partly, perhaps, a consequence of the orchestra being in an upstairs studio, relayed to the auditorium. But elsewhere sound and vision are in accord, especially when spritely dancers are leaping across buoyant waltzes. They begin with blithe pleasure on smiling faces, but this bliss is an ignorant one. The onstage world takes a turn into fire and turmoil, yet, when the ice cracks, it’s a door, an opportunity. Cardim has hope, after all.
Spanish choreographer Goyo Montero’s Chacona was made in 2017 but this is its first UK staging. It’s not madly original: Bach’s Partita No 2, chequerboard squares of light and shadow on the stage, sleek black costumes, grownup choreography in a familiar sort of global contemporary ballet style. But why shouldn’t Birmingham have some of that? The company look very comfortable in its tight formations and canon, defined lines and polished pas de deux. It makes the dancers look good, and that’s a wise directorial choice. Acosta promised to stretch his performers and bring new names and ideas to the ballet stage, and he’s been true to his word. It’s a great start to his Birmingham journey.
At Birmingham Repertory theatre until 12 June.