Review: Birmingham Royal Ballet - Shadows of War - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 & 18 September 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 20 October 2014

Birmingham Royal Ballet 'La Fin du jour' Nao Sakuma & artists of the company. Photo: Bill Cooper

Performance reviewed: 17 October

This triple bill of works lurking obscurely within the shadows of war provided a surprisingly eclectic range of entertainment: from the glamorous, languid insouciance of Le Fin du Jour ; through the gut-wrenching visceral shock of Miracle in the Gorbals; to the boundless, Scottish bounce of Flowers of the Forest . The programme was most notable for reintroducing an icon of British ballet history after an absence of nearly 60 years, providing much food for thought; as well as unveiling vastly differing perspectives on a vintage view of Britain; and it finished with a cascading flow of very pretty and uncomplicated dance.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s tribute to mark the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War comprises three pieces with no immediately obvious relevance to that particular conflict, or even to war in general. However, the diverse connections eventually unfold: Kenneth MacMillan’s _Le Fin du Jour ( The End of the Day) celebrates an innocent decadence about to be shattered by the outbreak of hostilities (although, in this case, marking the 1930s as opposed to the Edwardian age); Miracle in the Gorbals was created in the year of the D-Day landings (1944) although the narrative doesn’t reference the war at all – and Flowers of the Forest bears the most tenuous of connections through the allusions provided in the title (ie Where have all the Flowers Gone ).

Miracle in the Gorbals was last performed in 1958 – having chalked up 92 performances over 14 years. It was one of a very few theatrical ballets produced by the (then) leading male principal dancer, Robert Helpmann to fill the void left by the wartime service of Sadler’s Wells Ballet’s resident choreographer ( Frederick Ashton ). As an Australian, Helpmann was exempt from ‘call-up’ and this enabled his creative genius a brief outlet for work that invariably had a profound dramatic impact.

Unfortunately, his choreography has generally been forgotten and it is very much to the credit of David Bintley (the longstanding director in Birmingham) that considerable effort has been put into this restaging before it became too late. The driving force in resuscitating Helpmann’s masterpiece has been Dame Gillian Lynne – who danced in the very first cast – although she readily admits that none of the few survivors from the original casts could actually remember a step. So, her choreography is very much a flavour of what might have been although – to be frank – it is not Helpmann’s dance steps we need to rediscover but his intense sense of theatre and in this regard, Miracle in the Gorbals is well worth having back.

The bespoke music by Sir Arthur Bliss reveals a dramatic score of significant power and diversity – a classic that has been well worth rediscovering in its own right – and Edward Burra’s evocative designs of the period (dockside cranes peaking out from behind tenement balconies), long lost as actual sets and costumes – have been wonderfully reawakened by* Adam Wiltshire*. My only quibble is that somewhere in Helpmann’s vision of the Gorbals, there must have been a very efficient Chinese Laundry, since the clothes of the inhabitants of this area full of squalor were remarkably crisp and clean!

The story,developed by Helpmann’s partner, Michael Benthall, is an allegory that references the arrival of a Christ-like figure in the Clydeside district of Glasgow, ostensibly to bring back to life a young woman suicide. César Morales brought a brooding dramatic impact to the role of the mysterious stranger (originally portrayed by Helpmann himself) with Iain Mackay equally effective as the anti-hero, the community’s Minister (less overtly named ‘The Official’ in the original ballet) consumed first with lust for the local prostitute ( Elisha Willis ) and then by the guilt of the deed being done, finally enraged into vengeance by his jealousy of the stranger’s deeds and his adulation by the local people. The stranger is eventually sliced to death – with no light touch on the imagery – by the local razor gang (emulating the violence with the same instrument in the current Peaky Blinders TV series).

It is heavy stuff and in this tough reading, no holds are barred. Miracle in the Gorbals was a sizeable landmark in the development of British ballet – up until this point, no choreographer had attempted such realism by tackling such controversial subject-matter in the modern day and, perhaps more to the point, in an actual place – back in 1944, Glaswegians were not best pleased with the notion of local razor-wielding thugs cutting short the Second Coming!

Both La Fin du Jour and Flowers of the Forest seemed to be lightweight dance theatre in comparison and the former – graced by the colourful period costumes (led by society swimmers, aviatrixes and golfers ) and set design by Ian Spurling – was not so cleanly danced as it could have been with fluffed lifts and irregularities in the group unity. Nonetheless, Tyrone Singleton and Céline Gittens caught the eye in leading roles.

The closing work continued the Scottish theme set by Gorbals but with the stark realism replaced by dreamy idealism. Bintley’s early choreography (dating back to 1985) joins together two separate musical scores, danced by different casts: firstly, Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances, followed by Benjamin Britten’s Scottish Ballad, with the Royal Sinfonia (conducted by Paul Murphy) maintaining the excellent standard of the whole evening’s diverse musical spectrum.

Flowers of the Forest is a fast-moving marathon sprint with the first part in particular, redolent of Bournonville’s sharp-edged Danish interpretation of Scottish steps. The ‘‘yes’ proponents in the recent referendum on Scottish independence may have missed a trick, since this exuberant explosion of Scottishness could easily have been their campaign’s dance anthem!

Birmingham Royal Ballet will peform Shadows of War in Plymouth on 28 & 29 October

Main photo: La Fin du jour by Bill Cooper

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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