Of all the works to adapt for a ballet, Dylan Thomas's 'play for voices' Under Milk Wood is surely one of the least obvious, and one of the most challenging to consider. But Ballet Cymru's artistic director Darius James created his adaptation in 1998, and it has remained part of their repertoire ever since.
Ballet Cymru - formerly Independent Ballet Wales - was formed by James in 1986 with the aim of "presenting a high standard of classical ballet in an unpretentious and original way", touring to around 50 venues each year, and making ballet more accessible to audiences of all ages. That all changed last year, however, when the company received Arts Council funding for the first time; this has resulted in a name change, expanding the company to include three more dancers, and the freedom to spend more time in the studio and less time touring. The gentleman sitting next to me has been a fan of theirs since 1991, and he lamented that there were fewer opportunities to see them nowadays.
Under Milk Wood is the narration of a day in the lives of the characters who live in the fictional Welsh town of Llanrebbug (read it backwards!), from the retired sailor to the postman, the vicar and other increasingly eccentric characters. And we mustn't forget their pets: the dancers enthusiastically played the parts of cats, mice, dogs, horses and chickens. The narrator was Welsh actor Gwyn Vaughan Jones, who remained on stage throughout, sometimes surrounded by the dancers, at other times watching them from the back or the side of the stage.
The ten dancers enacted the dreaming villagers, performing solos to introduce each of the characters. The choreography made creative use of mime to create very naturalistic characters, activities and movement which the audience would easily be able to identify with and enjoy. There were some hilarious moments, such as the very very dark look which Mrs Dai Bread 2 gave Gwyn Vaughan Jones after a disparaging comment he made about her, or a husband and wife play-fighting with leeks. And the company is to be loved that little bit more for having the whole cast raising glasses to the audience to announce the start of the interval.
Ballet Cymru used a perfect mix of storytelling, acting, ballet and humour, creating a completely heartwarming experience. The performance was enhanced by being held in the intimate space of Lilian Baylis, ensuring that no detail was lost, and emphasising the immediacy of the piece. The backdrop was a series of sketches, subtly shifting between views of the town and individual houses, while the beautiful score by Thomas Hewitt Jones helped carry along the story of Llareggub.
All of the dancers are to be highly commended, although Helena Casado Cortes's performances were completely outstanding, transforming a minor role into one of the highlights of the show. Also impressive was Sam Bishop's virtuosic performance, thrilling the audience with his soaring leaps.
Despite the limited publicity for Ballet Cymru's visit to London, both performances have sold out - and their Under Milk Wood has made such an impression that I've cancelled the show I was going to see tonight, so that I can see their Beauty & The Beast instead! Keep your eyes peeled for last-minute returns...