Edward II notes
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Music John McCabe
Choreographer David Bintley
Design Peter J. Davidson
Costume Jasper Conran
Lighting Peter Mumford
Ever seen a ballet with a health warning?
Watch out for Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of Edward II, which tours the country this autumn. The Company is cautioning that its big and bloody Edward may seriously damage prevailing notions of what a ballet should be.
Created by David Bintley, who is also BRB's Artistic Director, Edward II is a far cry from the buffed and gilded world of classical ballet. The rampant excesses of a dark age are unleashed in a huge and terrifying full-length work which pulls no punches. Revolting sex acts and intimidating war scenes are graphically portrayed. The squeamish should stay at home with a cup of cocoa.
In spite of the vividness, Bintley is no sensationalist. He is a deft storyteller of integrity who did not set out deliberately to shock but who steeped himself in medieval history to ensure the accuracy of the ballet. The 14th century was a dark age but no darker that our own he says. Over the last 20 years, let alone the last century, war and genocide have loomed large in the public eye. Never has the 14th century looked so like the modern world.
Edward and Isabella tower over the bleak medieval world of Bintley's ballet, a king and his young French bride. The initial pity and compassion we feel for Isabella and loathing we feel for Edward, who flaunts his male lover, are completely reversed by the end. This is the crux of the ballet, and the aspect that most fascinates Bintley. 'They are all as bad and as good as each other, but the thing is that we understand why they are as they are. All is explainable', he says.
Bintley created Edward II for Stuttgart Ballet in 1995, just before taking up his position as head of BRB. He is thrilled at the return of the work. 'I am very excited about the piece. I will touch it up here and there, but it will be the same as it was in Stuttgart and in Birmingham nearly ten years ago.'
Bintley has remained faithful to the nasty, brutish and often short life of the times - the ballet is frightening, unpredictable and blood-soaked, there are beheadings, castrations, buggery, vomiting and urinating.
Because there are so many parallels with our times, Edward II is strikingly modern in Jasper Conran's costumes, Bintley's dance language and the plot, which wrestles with the dilemmas of sexuality and betrayal. This is a clincher for Bintley: 'The psychological interest is completely modern'. We can understand what makes each of the characters tick. Equally intriguing is the way that the sexual peccadilloes of a small group of people plunged the whole of Western Europe into a devastating war.
Isabella, a naive and desolate girl alone in a windswept castle, is heartlessly betrayed by Edward. We feel for the poor lamb as she gets caught up in bitter rows that ensnare the three of them. It seems all is not fair in love and war.
There is only one love pas de deux in the ballet - and it is not with Isabella. Bintley has created a tough and muscular duet for two men, with feelings bursting through their skin. 'It's not a camp scene or a dirty sex number but brings out our sympathy for them. It's moving, at least I was moved by it, and it stands our perceptions of them on their head', he says.
But such poignancy has no lasting place in this brutal world, so Bintley offsets this passionate coupling with a smutty, crude sex scene meant to evoke the sort of disgust that a 1970s San Francisco bathhouse might. Casual sex in Edward II is the flip side of casual violence.
Eventually, Isabella discovers her own power and grows into the monstrous She-Wolf of France, as she is called, whipping her troops into a heady lust for war. Bintley explains: 'These men know what they want war to be. They are gung-ho - really are up for it'. The soldiers get sucked into the swirling chaos, snarled into the anarchy of John McCabe's specially commissioned score, which thunders then folds into the pristine peace of men marching in unison, obeying the pound of a single drum beat.
Bintley has gone further than any other choreographer in portraying bloody and repulsive acts on stage. Kenneth MacMillan dealt with gang rape and double suicide pacts. Bintley tears people limb from limb or violates them to capture the spirit of the times. You have been warned.
Taken from a longer article, originally written for BRB by Anne Sacks.
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