Saturday 18 October 2014

Miracle in the Gorbals

Miracle in the Gorbals - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
Miracle in the Gorbals - photo Bill Cooper
Flowers of the Forest triple bill; Birmingham Royal Ballet; Sadler's Wells Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 17 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Thrilling revival of the Helpmann/Bliss/Burra Miracle in the Gorbals at centre of an imaginative evening of dance.

Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) brought its latest triple bill to London, at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 17 October 2014. Shadows of War featured three ballets, each with its own echo of war. Kenneth MacMillan's La Fin du Jour to Ravel's Piano Concerto, with designs by Ian Spurling depicted the bright young things of the 30's just before war started. David Bintley's Flowers of the Forest to Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances and Benjamin Britten's Scottish Ballad, with designs by Jan Blake and John Goodwin, contrasted a post-card view of Scotland with a darker reality. The centrepiece of the programme, and the source of great interest, was Gillian Lynne's revival/re-creation of Robert Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals to designs by Adam Wilshire after the original Edward Burra designs, with an original score by Arthur Bliss was a war-time ballet having been first conceived and performed by the Royal Ballet in 1944. Paul Murphy conducted the Royal Ballet Sinfonia with Jonathan Higgins as solo in the Ravel, and Higgins and Ross Williams as soloists in the Britten.

Sir Robert Helpmann was one of the main-stays of the Royal Ballet (then the Sadler's Wells Ballet) during the Second World War, because as an Australian he was not eligible for military service. A talented dancer and actor, his presence as the ballet's leading man and the shortage of choreographers led him into choreography as well and he produced a group of major works during the war. Of these only Hamlet, to music by Liszt, seems to have survived in the repertoire (I saw it at its revival in 1981). Unfortunately Miracle in the Gorbals did not (it seems to have last been performed in 1958). Rather bravely Birmingham Royal Ballet invited the choreographer Gillian Lynne, who had danced in the ballet under Helpmann, to re-create it. Lynne (who is now 88) admits in a note in the programme book that none of those survivors who danced in the original could remember a step, so she had to start from scratch. Neither do Edward Burra's designs survive, we just have black and white photographs, and Adam Wilshire had to do some similar archaeology, including sourcing 1940's street clothes from vintage shops.

Cesar Morales as the Stranger in Miracle in the Gorbals - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
Cesar Morales as The Stranger in
Miracle in the Gorbals, photo Bill Cooper
What does survive is Arthur Bliss's magnificent score, and bringing this back to theatrical life was certainly worth the work. The original ballet was very much a collaborative venture between four men, choreographer Helpmann, designer Burra, composer Bliss and the librettist Michael Benthall, the theatre director who was Helpmann's partner. The story was based on Jerome K Jerome's short story The Passing of the Third Floor Back which was made into a novel and a film. Benthall re-located it to the Gorbals in Glasgow (where Benthall had been stationed). It was Bliss's fourth ballet, and he had written Checkmate for Sadlers Wells in 1937 with choreography by Ninette de Valois.

Arthur Bliss wrote at a lot of work for the stage, ten ballets, three operas and three lots of incidental music. Of these only the ballet Checkmate survives in the repertory as a theatrical work, neither of his collaborations with Helpmann survives, Miracle in the Gorbals and Adam Zero. His opera The Olympians has not had a professional stage production (I think) since its premiere at Covent Garden in 1949, when it was unfairly compared to Britten, and his large scale cantata The Beatitudes had its premiere in 1961 shunted into a Coventry theatre to make way for Britten's War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral.

The music for Miracle in the Gorbals is imaginative and richly textured, using quite a decent sized orchestra (double woodwind, four horns, brass, percussion, timps and harp). The music was written by Bliss with the scenario and designs in front of him, and it is wonderfully woven into the drama. But he also uses quite a lot of popular rhythms, Helpmann commented that the score was 'very modern indeed and contained all sorts of rhythms, like the rumba and the palais glide'. But there is grandeur too, with the some of the later sections taking transcending the piece's realistic setting.

Iain Mackay as the Minister and Elisha Willis as the Prostitute - Miracle in the Gorbals - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
Elisha Willis as the Prostitute, Iain Mackay
as the Minister, Miracle in the Gorbalsphoto Bill Cooper
Nowadays we would not regard the score as very modern, but with historical perspective we can place Bliss's style in context rather than beating him up for not being Britten. Bliss (1891 - 1975) had displayed quite a modernist side in the 1920's producing 'smart' modern music like Rout, but by the 1940's his more romantic side came in. Miracle in the Gorbals is beautifully tailored to its function, and whilst Bliss did extract a concert suite, the music really comes to life when used in the ballet and it received a very fine performance indeed from Paul Murphy and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

Adam Wilshire's designs, including a drop curtain, were very evocative and certainly looked convincingly Burra-esque. And Lynne's choreography evoked, for me both the photographs of the original and my memories of Helpmann's highly dramatic style in Hamlet. As a choreographer he was not a great technician, there is not a lot of complex dance, instead he used a highly gestural language to tell a story. This ballet was set in the present (1940's), and told a contemporary story involving a stranger who works miracles and is killed. Whilst odd details of the choreography may not seem quite right, overall Lynne had drawn a wonderful expressive gestural language from her dancers. It was, quite rightly, very period with big movements, dramatic ensemble freezes but it made gripping drama.

In a large cast, Iain Mackay was highly expressive as the conflicted Minister who visits the Prostitute (Elisha Willis) and incites the Razor Gang to kill the Stranger (Cesar Morales) out of jealousy. Morales was very charismatic as the Stranger (the role danced by Helpmann), who brings the Suicide (Delia Mathews) back to life. There are lots of smaller roles, a pair of young lovers (Yvette Knight, William Bracewell), a mother (Laura Purkiss), a fish shop owner (Lachlan Monachan), a bar man in a pub (Benjamin Soerel), Michael O'Hare was the characterful beggar and there were as well sundry urchins and of course the Razor Gang. All brought the drama to life and you forgot the medium and concentrated on the message.

Whilst dance drama has, to a certain extent, gone out of fashion there are still pockets of enthusiasm, companies like Northern Ballet have made a career doing them and David Bintley at Birmingham Royal Ballet has continued to produced narrative ballets. So I do hope that this new production of Miracle in the Gorbals gives the ballet a new life and introduces audiences to the evocative combination of music, dance, design and drama.

La Fin du Jour - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
La Fin du Jour - photo Bill Cooper
Kenneth MacMillan's La Fin du Jour was premiered in 1979 and BRB last performed it during their opening season in 1990. Using Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major it sees MacMillan in lighter mode depicting the frantic bright young things of the 1930's. But this is still MacMillan and you sense a slightly satirical eye in both the choreography and Ian Spurling's 1930's inspired costumes with long shorts, floppy hats for the men, revealing amounts of male chest, and pure Fred and Ginger in the final movement. It is also a very technical piece, the first movement full of small detailed steps, and lots of lifts. This is a baĺlet which requires a complement of strong men (something BRB certainly provided). The company was in fact in top form, giving a crisp and nicely detailed account of the choreography, very much the art that conceals art.

In Tyrone Singleton and Brandon Lawrence we had a wonderfully balanced pair of male leads, and I took particular joy in their Fred Astaire duet at the start of the third movement. They were nicely complemented by Yvette Knight and Celine Gittens; the second movement is very much theirs and here we got extensive manipulation of the two women by the male corps, familiar from many other MacMillan ballet. Playing a solo piano part for a ballet is more restricting than doing so in concert but Jonathan Higgins gave a fluent and stylish account of the work, well supported by Paul Murphy and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia.

I saw this ballet during its first run in 1979/1980 and I was delighted to make its acquaintance. I am not certain that it has much in the way of shadows of war (the way Frederick Ashton's La valse does), but it made a stylish and sparkling opener.

`Mathias Dingman - Flowers of the Forest - Birmingham Royal Ballet - photo Bill Cooper
Mathias Dingman, Flowers of the Forestphoto Bill Cooper
The evening concluded with David Bintley's 1985 ballet Flowers of the Forest which was originally made for BRB's predecessor company Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. The work starts with Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances, giving a picture book image of Scotland with Jan Blake's costume pure Victorian Scottish kitsch, against Jon Goodwin's backdrop which, though abstract, evoked the Highland glens. There were three couples, Nao Sakuma, Jamie Bond, Arancha Baselga, Tzu-Chao Chou, Kit Holder, Maureya Lebowitz, who clearly revelled in David Bintley's lively choreography.

Then things got darker with Britten's Scottish Ballad, a 1941 piece for piano duet and orchestra which is a free fantasy on Scottish ballads. Costumes for Elisha Willis, Mathias Dingman and the corps were more traditional (a little closer to the 17th century plaid) and Goodwin's backdrop became darker and bloodier in colour. Britten's score starts off darkly expressionist and includes the ballad Flowers of the Forest which was written about Flodden Field. The but the darkness left and all ended in joy.

Bintley's choreography was imaginative and fluent, with hints towards Scottish dancing, and he clearly took great delight in the expressive (and erotically suggestive) possibilities of men dancing in kilts. The result was not more revealing than the average contemporary dance costume but still highly sexy and full of humour.

I thought that the central section of Bintley's ballet could have been darker, but overall this evening was a brilliant celebration of dancing in its many forms.

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