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Flash Review 1, 9-22: Forces of Nature Meet Forces of Bintley
Birmingham's "Edward II" Storms City Center in U.S. Premiere

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2000 Alicia Mosier

DATELINE: England, 1327. Here's a rough sketch of what's been happening in the past twenty years. King Edward II became infatuated with the young Piers Gaveston, made him an Earl, then went to France to marry Isabella, daughter of Philip IV. Gaveston was banished by the thuggish barons, who were disgusted by the whole thing and soon started amassing power and got Isabella on their side. Edward made a deal so Gaveston could return; his amour was promptly killed. Edward was defeated in battle and got a new lover, Hugh Despenser, who was later also killed. Isabella, scheming like mad in France with Edward's enemies, plotted to rescue young prince Edward III and undertook the invasion of England. The King's enemies were hanged, he renounced his throne, and died a mysterious death, almost certainly by murder.

Ballet, anyone?

David Bintley's 1995 work "Edward II," which his impressive Birmingham Royal Ballet (in its first U.S. appearance under that name and Bintley's direction; it was formerly Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet) brought to City Center last night, has been alternately hyped and howled at by critics, mostly because of its front-and-center depiction of a lot of that grisly business. But the homoerotic lust and the gore (much of which is not quite as shocking as advertised) are not the most astonishing parts of this choreographer's telling of the tale. The most astonishing part is the force of the narrative, a force so captivating that it had the primly dressed people around me clapping like crazy and literally booing at the barons during the curtain call.

"Edward II," based on the play by Christopher Marlowe, is part of a ballet tradition we've had little contact with in the States, at least since Balanchine started stripping the altars. It's the tradition of the great British choreographers -- Ashton, Tudor, MacMillan -- and their grand theatrical style, through which you can see right down to ancient Greece. Indeed, Bintley has produced something here that resembles Greek comedy and tragedy, a medieval morality play, and a Shakespearean (or Marlowian, as the case may be) history more than a conventional ballet. Remember in high school English class when you learned about those peasants in Renaissance England who used to go to history plays for fun? Because they were really, really exciting? That's what Bintley has brought to ballet. This work needs a much bigger stage than City Center's; it needs the Met, or better still, the Athenian amphitheater. There were excellent sets by Peter J. Davison, costumes by Jasper Conran, and lights by Peter Mumford. Everything here was pitched to excite.

But if it's excitement you're going for, why tell a story like this one -- full of inherently exciting blood and sex and historical tangles -- through ballet? For a born storyteller like Bintley, and especially for one coming from this tradition, the answer is simple: because it's a ripping good tale, and because ballet is potent. Bintley said last weekend in the New York Times that he is "fatally attracted" to the full-length, dramatic, story-ballet form. In the throes of that attraction he has developed a choreographic language that is deeply classical, slightly skewed, and often very effective. What makes "Edward II" so impressive is the discipline and flexibility of that language. Unlike so many story ballets, this one -- in terms of sheer choreography, at least -- hardly ever goes over the top. There's very little of the breast-beating, fist-raised-in-spontaneous-vow-making cheesiness here that we're accustomed to in story ballets; in fact, there's almost no mime at all. What there is instead is a purposeful, focused use of feet, arms, neck, and back, of motif and pacing and development. Bintley knows how to use the tools of theater, drama, and dance -- he believes in them, and he is able to make them strangely full of power.

The first time we see Edward and "his childhood friend" (so says the program note) Piers Gaveston together, for example, our first hint that something is up between them is a quite simple theatrical device: they're both wearing things that glint like stars in the black-robed solemnity of Edward's coronation -- Edward a crown, Gaveston a silver shirt. Then they start to horse around; they're giddy with joy, but self-conscious too; they've got horsing around down to a science, because they've clearly had few other ways to show their affection; and now, on purpose, they are almost embarrassingly playful before the horrified men of honor. And all this detail comes through what appears to be a pretty basic horsing-around duet; it comes right through the movement. Wolfgang Stollwitzer (formerly of John Cranko's Stuttgart Ballet, he created the role of Edward II) and Robert Parker (as Gaveston) weren't going out of their way to emote - they didn't need to (although, throughout, both men could have been more deeply engaged with John McCabe's roiling music, conducted by Barry Wordsworth).

As Queen Isabella, Monica Zamora goes from innocent to animal by way of subtle adjustments in the way she moves. In her first appearance, a duet with her maid (the fine Isabel McMeekan), Zamora reveals the young naif's worry about her marriage through a tensed chest and taut feet. When Edward and Gaveston come in, making the worry a reality, they start her in a series of caustic tosses, during the course of which you start to realize just how despicable all these people could really turn out to be. (This trio structure is mirrored later in an odd domestic romp by Edward, his son, and Hugh Despenser [very well acted by Jonathan Payn], and later still by Edward and two of his snaky executioners.) As Isabella gradually falls in with Mortimer, an exquisitely disgusting political boss (who has groomed his cronies to dress like him, which is to say, like a member of KISS), her vulnerability vanishes, her costumes turn velvet-red and sparkling-black, and her movements grow spiked and angled. Near the end of one solo, deep in the heart of the deceit, she lets out a shuddering laugh -- we've seen her tragedy developing, but Bintley lets it happen so its ghastliness still shocks.

Bintley is a remarkably versatile choreographer -- every character here speaks, as it were, in his or her own choreographic dialect. He is especially good with the bad guys, and the bad guys last night were especially good. Joseph Cipolla as Mortimer pounds around the stage with his band of uglies in such a way that you can imagine the fun they all have when they make a routine courtesy call down in the dungeon. For him there are syncopated stomps of all varieties, the most brutally rhythmic steps in the ballet. Lightborn (Toby Norman-Wright) is a demonic/angelic fellow in S&M garb who both tortures and takes care of Edward II in prison. He slithers and beats on the walls. The baddest bad guy of all -- the Grim Reaper -- appears out of nowhere near the end of the first act, and the great David Justin makes him probably the most deeply creepy figure ever to appear on a New York stage. Justin's control over his body is such that he actually makes the curve of his upper back match the subtle curve of his scythe. He literally made my jaw drop. If the emotional depth of his performance had been matched by the other dancers, I think the ballet would have looked quite different; not better, perhaps, but different.

Bintley is also good with crowds - the group of rascally urchins with whom Edward II and Gaveston play at the beach (they do a masque called "Le Roman de Fauval" featuring, among other things, a jester and an outsized male member that together recall some classic scenes in Aristophanes); the aforementioned glam-rock barons with their "De La Guarda" stomping and, later, their murderous plotting bathed in shiny, bloodlike light; and the party, in the second act, to celebrate the betrothal of young Edward III, in which pretty medieval court dancing holds the floor alongside men in pastel three-button suits and Mortimer in his swarthy prehistorical getup. This is high caricature of the best sort. The pace sags a little here and there, but what's happening on stage is always worth looking at.

That is, when one can stand to look. Bintley has a sense for the intensely weird; at the same time his choreography is pure and deeply traditional. It's this combination, I think, that makes some of the intentionally shocking parts of "Edward II" seem overblown and unnecessary. He shows us what he can do with this strange, sweeping language he's developed, and then he gives us, for instance, a very long duet between the king and the bloody bag into which his lover's decapitated head has been dropped. Et cetera. It's just too much. We get the point in the first ten seconds the bag is sitting on the stage. Then there is torture, castration, urination on the bloodied body of the king, and an impaling with a red-hot poker that I'd rather never think about again. (I know I am leaving out a few things.) I'm not sure why Bintley feels the need to go into this gross-out overkill. It doesn't tell us any more about the brutality of the time or the problem of cruelty or the consequences of x, y, or z than the dancing has already told us. And to be honest, Bintley has created a far more terrifying image of loss and torment in the Grim Reaper, who merely turns and walks and stalks.

As for the character of Edward II himself, I have to say, at first I didn't find it satisfying. Stollwitzer, who has been performing this role for five years now, clearly knows what he is about. His dancing is full of emotion, and his Edward takes us through the story of his lusts and loves and losses, but I never felt like I was seeing the why of anything he did -- even, in the end, why he suffered so. It's obvious why he was killed -- the politics of power knows no bounds -- but about what precisely was he so aghast? The loss of his kingdom? His wife and son? His lovers? His pride and his honor? All of these, of course, but how did they all work out in him? I had the same reaction to Gaveston, who puzzled me when he wiped away tears after that cruel dance he and Edward had with Isabella. It's here where we have to wonder how far ballet can go in investigating and expressing, for instance, the mysteries of the moral and political life.

We might worry about the answer to that question, but Bintley does not -- and here is the source of his ballet's success. He appreciates his chosen form enough to know full well its limitations and to work quite happily within them. In the world Bintley has created here, it is enough to tell the story; indeed, that's the point. Though it uses no mime, "Edward II" is more like a mime than a conventional dramatic ballet; like the ancient works by the great tellers of tales, it makes us say both "What in God's name are these people?" and "Tell it again!"

There is a fine line between spectacle and shock, between drama and cornball pathos, between storytelling and moralizing (or even psychologizing). Bintley walks it well in this work, and it's clear when he falls over -- the audience giggles where it should gasp, gets perplexed when it should be rallying, turns away when it should be looking on in horror. But for the most part Bintley keeps his tools well-sharpened and his choreographic voice well-pitched. His excellent dancers have the muscle, physically and emotionally, to perform a tale like this one so that it is believable and -- no small feat in such a long ballet -- so that you are constantly engaged. The result of all this is a work not of psychological profundity, perhaps, but of exceptionally high entertainment. For my money, we have quite enough of the former to go around in the arts today, and not nearly enough of the latter.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of "Edward II" repeats tonight, Saturday, and Tuesday at 8 p.m., with matinees Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. The company presents a mixed bill next Thursday through Sunday.

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