Cath Barton attends the Riverfront Theatre in Newport to review a new Welsh ballet performance by Ballet Cymru, A Child’s Christmas.
There’s the rush in the rain and the flurry to find the right seats and the settling down and then the Welsh star, Cerys Matthews walks onto an empty stage and tells us that this is a special day. And what she tells is that exactly 65 years ago Dylan Thomas set sail for another shore. And I think, oh, is this the day he set on on his first trip to America? But no, no, I’m wrong –it’s actually the anniversary of his death.
That reminder lends an extra frisson to an evening devoted to dance and musical interpretations of Thomas’s work, the first performance in their home city of Ballet Cymru’s new co-production with the Riverfront Theatre. The production is in two halves, and it was a privilege and pleasure to hear Ballet Cymru patron Cerys Matthews and award-winning jazz musician Arun Ghosh narrating and playing live in the first half, which was devoted to some of Thomas’s best-loved poems. Dance responses to the poems and Matthews’s music from her recording A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs (2014) have been choreographed by Ballet Cymru’s Founder and Artistic Director Darius James and his long-time collaborator and Assistant Artistic Director Amy Doughty.
One of the sections which I found most powerful in this excursion through these “spindrift pages”– as Thomas called his own work in his poem In My Craft Or Sullen Art – was the solo dance to the poem The Hunchback in the Park, the rolling movements of music and dancer mirroring the freedom evoked in Thomas’s words.
Ghosh moved from the keyboard to the Indian harmonium to lend a more insistent timbre to Do Not Go Gentle, danced most movingly by a female duo. In And Death Shall Have No Dominion pairs of dancers portrayed the weight of life and death, and Matthews’ delivery of the poem was as strong as its cadences.
Thomas’s poetry is itself music and conjures so many pictures for the listener. Where the dance worked best, for me, was in pointing rather than underlining or trying to add to the words, in clear gestures such as the dancers looking skywards after the line: “The ball I threw while playing in the park has not yet reached the ground” from Should Lanterns Shine, and the exuberant dance sequence at the end of Fern Hill illuminating an echo of its final words “… I sang in my chains like the sea.”
After the break, we had Matthews’s recorded voice and her music recorded by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as part of a multi-media production of Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a stockingful of assorted memories, from snowballing cats to useless presents. The opening video projection of children talking about what they like about Christmas – including, of course, presents – set the scene beautifully, and when the lighting changed to reveal the dancers on stage it was almost as if they were miniatures inside a musical box. The back projections, and the falling snow, were like animated Christmas cards, the interiors warmed by Chris Illingworth’s superb lighting design.
Matthews’s orchestration already highlights the different characters in the story, so that an additional layer of dance narrative sometimes feels a little over-busy, but there are lovely vignettes, especially the portrayal of the uncles “trying their new cigars” and the aunts “on the very edges of their chairs, poised and brittle, afraid to break, like faded cups and saucers.” And also the portrayal of the lumbering hippos!
A child’s Christmas must-have children and the involvement of Year 4 pupils from Clytha Primary School in Newport not only incorporated the child’s perspective but also exemplified Ballet Cymru’s commitment to engagement with their local communities. I thought the opening and closing ensemble scenes of A Child’s Christmas, in particular, were delightful, gestures clear within the swirl of the dance. And the way in which the company took their curtain call, with young and older dancers partnered, and each duo and trio having their moment, was utterly charming and so affirming for those young dancers in particular.
It was evident from this performance, and the response of the capacity audience, that Ballet Cymru is much loved in its local community, and deservedly so for its commitment to both excellence and inclusion.
More details about this show and its performance dates can be found here.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her prize-winning debut novella The Plankton Collector is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com@CathBarton1