A sinistral sorcerer, a pair of star-crossed lovers thwarted by descent, a levitating genie and a plot that criss-crosses from one supernatural state to the next; no wonder Aladdin has served as fodder to so many choreographers. Brave choreographers, it should be said, as Aladdin is essentially a story that exists in two cultural spheres: the sanitized Disney version and the darker, more maleficent folk tale that stems from The Book of a One Thousand and One Nights. Too often theatrical interpretations verge on the edge of pantomime or, worse yet, attempt to merge the two vastly different versions together.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin not only leaves histrionics at home but stays beautifully faithful to the ancient Middle Eastern version while concurrently disarming the Disney generation. Artistic director David Bintley originally choreographed the piece for the National Ballet of Japan, a company lauded more for technique than narrative grit. Thus led to Bintley relying more on choreographic language to create, as he calls it, a “real dance show” that “does what it says on the tin”.
A “real dance show” it most certainly is. The choreography, if not a little cookie-cutter at times, is sweeping and grandiose and in true Birmingham company spirit, gives every dancer the chance to shine. Chile-born Cesar Morales, a dynamic performer with impressive elevation, imbues his Aladdin with an impish, jocular quality and wide-eyed charm. It’s a no-brainer to see why he immediately bewitches the beautiful Princess Badr al-Budar, played by a technically flawless Nao Sakuma.
But it’s a long journey to happiness for the ill-fated lovers. Aladdin must first endure a trek through unforgiving desert sands led by the evil sorcerer from Mahgrib (a deliciously evil Iain Mackay) and three nights locked in a cadaverous cave until he discovers the power of the magic oil lamp and the genie within (a dazzling, dizzying Tzu-Chao Chou).
Bintley’s choreography is vivified by Dick Bird’s fantastical set design: inky blue skies illuminate towering domes; a prancing, tumbling carnival dragon; a magic carpet sequence that defies gravity and beautifully realized interior scenes that catapults the audience into the heart of the Middle East. Unfortunately, Carl Davis’ scattered score matches neither the splendour of Bintley’s choreography nor the alchemy of Bird’s design. A pity, because apart from that, Bintley’s direction is strong; not once does his vision waver.
Bintley himself describes Aladdin as “possibly the least ‘deep’ ballet I’ve ever made” but you shouldn't be deterred by his self-depreciation. His Aladdin is an accomplished piece of work abundant in spectacle, stamina - and soul.
- Vanessa Keys