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Beauty and the Beast notes
Archives: Beauty and the Beast
Another chance to read John Percival's exploration on the ballet from it's debut in 2003
For 20 years or more David Bintley has waited to be able to make his new ballet Beauty and the Beast. He always thought it a great story, one of the best fairy tales for adults as well as children, but he knew that its complexity would need music specially written. And way back in the 1980s this was not practicable, so he abandoned the subject for the time being in favour of another fairy story, The Snow Queen, for which he was able to use a score made up of themes by Moussorgsky, arranged by the Company's then principal conductor Bramwell Tovey.
By coincidence, it was through coming across a CD conducted by Tovey (who had moved to establish himself in Canada) that Bintley eventually discovered the composer Glenn Buhr, a man about his own age but working on the other side of the Atlantic. And what he heard bowled him over at once. Discovering Buhr's music, Bintley says, was the catalyst for revisiting his long-held idea.
The subject is one that everybody knows, and naturally Bintley is familiar with treatments in other media; he admires the Walt Disney version, and loved the celebrated film by Jean Cocteau. But he insists that what he has done is entirely different, not influenced by them at all, nor by previous ballets on the subject (including a wonderfully lyrical long duet in 1949 by John Cranko to Ravel's music for BRB's predecessor, Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet). One extraneous artistic influence he will admit to is a woodcut, 'How the animals buried the hunter', by Moritz von Schwind, where the beasts standing on two legs as they carry the body helped to shape his treatment of the creatures in the ballet. Chiefly, however, Bintley has taken his inspiration direct from literature, and because the story comes to us primarily from French sources his ballet will have a French flavour.
He tells the story in two acts, each containing three scenes that alternate between the house of Belle's father and the beast's castle. There is also a prologue in which a handsome but heartless prince is turned into the beast.
When Belle's father, a merchant in difficulties, later takes refuge from a storm in the beast's castle, his theft of a single rose for his lovely daughter precipitates all their following troubles. But the beast turns out by then to have become good and kind, and he earnestly courts Belle. This is comically counterpointed by the wish of a wealthy admirer, Monsieur Cochon ('Mr Pig'), to marry one of her proud, vain sisters or even both of them!
Of course there are many familiar incidents, for instance the meal served magically by invisible hands, but there are some unexpected touches too, such as a ball in the beastıs castle where all the guests are fantastic creatures who, like their host, were changed from their human form because of their beastly natures. And even they at last turn out well because again of course there has to be a happy ending with everyone living happily ever after.
When I was shown the working script for the action, I remarked to Bintley that he seemed to have set himself quite a task in turning such a complex narrative into movement, but he was confident that it is all going to be clear to follow when we see it, rather than simply reading about it.
At that time he had not started working with the dancers, but he had developed his ideas extensively with his two main collaborators. In the case of Glenn Buhr, they were not only working together for the first time but were separated most of the while by the Atlantic Ocean. All the same, Bintley is happy that the telephone and e-mail discussions proved to work 'extraordinarily well'. He had in fact thought about the ballet again some four or five years ago but could not get any further with it until he found the composer, because he needed a musical idea from which to go forward. What he found in Buhr's music was a distinct personality, yet a very accessible one, and the sense of drama that the subject needs.
Colourful and full of melody, he thinks the orchestration bewitching. There is some influence of minimalism, but jazz, Broadway and eastern influences are also cited. There is, besides, something very special about Buhr's scherzos 'I've never heard music written that fast', Bintley declares, and for one episode, a bird journey, he specifically asked for the music to be as fast as possible. All in all, the word he keeps coming back to when talking about the score is 'magical'; that is the quality that gave him inspiration to go ahead with the idea at last. Altogether he makes it sound as if we are in for something rather special.
About his other collaborator, David says that Philip Prowse is very difficult to work with because he is so challenging and questions everything you take to him. But, as with their work together on Carmina burana, this is immensely stimulating. Prowse is not only a distinguished designer (think of his Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty for BRB) but a theatre director too, with strong ideas on narrative, so when Bintley has different ways he could go, Prowse's logic helps clarify and develop the potential courses. Moreover, his designs enhance the other aspects of the ballet by being, as Bintley wanted, unpredictable.
The aim all through has been to make a ballet that, like The Nutcracker, will appeal to children but will be equally suitable for adults. Bintley says that the reason why he turns to fairy tales, sagas and legends as subjects for ballet is because they do appeal to all levels of intellect and enjoyment. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, he knows that he has put a new spin on the story, but hopes he has remained faithful to its heart, because in his view the great strength of the best fairy stories is their truth.
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