Cyrano

Unrequited love plays out against a turbulent period in French history, including the costumes, the moves, and of course that enlarged nose 

The Birmingham Royal Ballet’s current production of Cyrano is a bit of a rarity in the world of 'story ballet'. It actually has a plot that is more than an elaborate excuse to put lots of dancers on stage, leaping and spinning and making beautiful shapes. 

The production was premiered two years ago with a newly-composed score by Carl Davis. He and director/choreographer David Bintley spent almost a year on the music, devising piece-by-piece how Edmund Rostand’s classic play, first staged in Paris in 1897, would translate into ballet. The music is mainly true to the period’s style, with echoes of Lully and Charpentier, with a surprising turn for the electronic Ondes-Martenot, the instrument used most famously in the Dr Who theme. 

The plot rests on the fact that the title character is a poet and soldier with a very big nose. He doesn’t believe anyone can love him, but despite this has fallen in love with his cousin Roxanne. She, however, has fallen for another, Christian, a soldier in Cyrano’s regiment, and asks our hero to deliver a love letter on to the object of her affections. 

Handsome but illiterate, Christian asks Cyrano to help him woo Roxanne in turn, and in so doing sets in motion a torrent of letters and poetry in which Cyrano pours out his own love to Roxanne, written for Christian. In the play's most famous scene, Cyrano even plays Christian, in which he speaks to Roxanne unseen from under a balcony. We all know that it is the words that Roxanne loves, but she is the last to realise that Cyrano is responsible for them. 

The essential problem for Bintley and his talented company is how to portray in movement a story that relies so heavily upon words, but they manage to do just that. In the scenes where Roxanne or Cyrano read the love letters aloud, Bintley employs elements of British sign language - a simple but effective (and utterly beautiful) remedy. 

Both Robert Parker as Cyrano and Elisha Willis as Roxanne incorporate these unorthodox movements into their ballet vocabulary with ease. The Birmingham Royal Ballet are, after all, famous for their inventive choreographic language. 

Other characters inhabit their roles as fully as their costumes, designed for the original production and true to the era of the musketeer and 17th-century French society. There are long elaborate gowns and nun’s habits for the women, and full pantaloons, boots, swords and greatcoats for the men. 

This Cyrano is really as much about theatre as anything, but the dancing is so skilfully integrated into the whole that it is hard to separate the one from the other. Each dancer is also an accomplished actor. Thus the characters' transformations are believable, as are the central tensions of unrequited, misplaced love played out against turbulent times in French history.

Andrea Rea

Cyrano is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, October 13-17. Click here for full details.