‘Shadows of War’. Birmingham Royal Ballet

18 October 2014 (matinee), Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

None of the works on Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill program, Shadows of War, focuses on war itself. Rather the focus is on the effects of war on humanity. Of the three works, I have to admit that I was especially interested in Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals, first performed in London in 1944. Archival photos from the National Library of Australia’s various collections relating to Helpmann have always aroused my interest. It was a ballet with a name that I really didn’t understand. Well Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production turned out to be a fascinating restaging of the original, with choreography by Gillian Lynne, ‘after Helpmann’. Lynne appeared in the original production and remained a close friend of Helpmann throughout his life.

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in 'Miracle in the Gorbals', Sadler's Wells Ballet, 1944

Robert Helpmann as the Stranger in Miracle in the Gorbals, Sadler’s Wells Ballet, 1944. National Library of Australia

There are aspects of this restaging that look dated, which is hardly surprising given that the work is 70 years old. The obvious themes of the evils of prostitution and power of Christianity (or religion), the latter shown via the return to earth of a Christ figure (the Stranger, played originally by Helpmann), seem a somewhat melodramatic way of developing the universal themes of love, betrayal, forgiveness and so forth.

But the strength of the production lies in the strength of the collaborative elements of the original. Edward Burra’s front cloth is a powerful opening image. A huge ship’s prow appears to jut out into the auditorium. It represents the shipyards along the river Clyde in Glasgow where the story is set in slum tenements, the Gorbals. The image is instantly arresting, as is the commissioned score by Arthur Bliss, which reflects so clearly the changing moods and events of the story.

To write down, or explain the narrative is complex but, in fact, the story, in which a mysterious stranger brings a woman back from the dead and reforms a prostitute but is eventually killed by the town’s jealous minister, is instantly understandable as we watch events unfold on stage. And here the collaborative nature of the original comes to the fore again. The libretto was written by Michael Benthall and focuses strongly on developing characters without going into extraneous detail. When Arnold Haskell saw Miracle in 1944 he wrote: ‘With rare skill [Benthall] avoided the pitfalls of novelising his story. Everything that he put down could be made clear in balletic action and was discussed in detail with Helpmann.’ And so it was with the Lynne restaging.

The balletic action is very much in the mode of dance-drama rather than ballet per se. In fact the action was sometimes quite static, often relying on group poses or dramatic stillness. Every dancer gave a powerful performance. Apart from the leading players, Elisha Willis as the Prostitute, César Morales as the Stranger, Iain Mackay as the Minister, and Delia Mathews as the Suicide, standouts for me were Michael O’Hare as the Beggar and three Old Women played by Ruth Brill, Jade Heusen and Marion Tait.

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Delia Mathews as the Suicide and Iain Mackay as the Minister, Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2014. Photo: Bill Cooper

Kenneth MacMillan’s La fin du jour opened the program. This work, which dates to 1979, is danced to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major, and examines the lifestyle of a certain class of people in the inter-war years. It left me a little cold, although I enjoyed the second act, the adagio. Here MacMillan’s skill at using stillness as a choreographic tool was clearly evident as we watched the dancing of two women, each partnered by five men in different combinations with none leaving the stage throughout the scene.

The triple bill closed with David Bintley’s Flowers of the forest. It was joyous series of dances in the Scottish mode. Bouquets to the gentleman who executed double tours en l’air ending in a full plié in 5th position. Wonderful.

Michelle Potter, 19 October 2014

Dance diary. March 2014

  • Prince of the Pagodas

As a much younger person I remember being fascinated by Svetlana Beriosova. I guess she was the dancer I admired most when I was a ballet student, although I’m not sure why as I had never seen her dance. But she looked so coolly elegant from photographs, and I particularly remember images of her in what sounded from 1950s Sydney, thousands of miles away from London, like a very exotic ballet, Prince of the Pagodas. Beriosova did come to Australia with the Royal Ballet, which visited Sydney in 1958. I was there, autograph book in hand, as these stars from afar came out of the stage door of the old Empire Theatre at Railway Square. That season I finally saw Beriosova dance—as Swanilda in Coppélia.

Svetlana Beriosova in 'The Prince of the Pagodas'
Svetlana Beriosova signature

Prince of the Pagodas, however, remained a mystery. The first production, choreographed by John Cranko in 1957 to a commissioned score by Benjamin Britten, was short-lived. Kenneth MacMillan produced another version in 1989, which was recently restaged by the Royal Ballet. I didn’t have an opportunity to see either the Cranko or the MacMillan version, but I did catch a third version created by David Bintley in 2011. Bintley made his production for the National Ballet of Japan and it has just finished a season in London danced by Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet. Sadly for my childhood dreams, it was one of the most disappointing shows (and it was a show in the more popular meaning of that word) I have seen recently.

Bintley rewrote the narrative and set it in Japan but the story remains as crazy as ever, requiring a suspension of belief beyond belief. There are various reviews available online, along with accounts of the storyline and discussions of the history of the work, but I won’t post the links—they are easy to find. Suffice it to say that in 2014 I find it a little offensive to have characters called ‘Balinese Ladies’ who engage in choreography that vaguely references but basically, in my opinion, denigrates Balinese dancing; or rows of ladies dressed in long, pink gowns twirling pink parasols as if they are performing something called The Cherry Blossom Show. And I am mentioning just two of the more irritating (to me) elements of the production.

Britten’s score might continue to deserve a place in the concert repertoire, especially as an example of the ubiquitous influence of the Balinese gamelan on Western composers of Britten’s generation, largely under the influence of the eminent Canadian ethnomusicologist, Colin McPhee. But as a ballet, Prince of the Pagodas should probably just disappear into the mists of time. I doubt if any amount of tinkering can save it.

Beriosova’s image as a great dancer, however, remains intact for me.

  • More on Simple Symphony

Just a few days ago I had the huge pleasure of encountering first hand the unpublished dance writing of Lionel Bradley, whom I now like to think of as a blogger before the internet, and the word ‘blog’, was invented. Bradley was a librarian at the London Library in the 1940s and a great lover of ballet and dance of all kinds (and of other forms of performance). His handwritten dance texts, Ballet Bulletins 1941–1947 and Ballevaria Miscellanea 1937–1947, which he liked to circulate as he comleted each entry to a small group of friends, are housed in the Department of Theatre and Performance of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Although I was not there specifically to research Simple Symphony, as I had previously posted some thoughts about it it was a bonus to find that in his Bulletins Bradley had spent some time discussing early performances of this ballet by Walter Gore, which was a staple item in the repertoire brought to Australia on the Ballet Rambert tour of 1947–1949. Bradley was enthralled by the ballet. It was ‘a gorgeous success’ he wrote when he saw it for the first time in Torquay in December 1944 during one of Ballet Rambert’s regional tours.

His discussion of the backcloth and costumes by Ronald Wilson is especially interesting as I have never seen colour photographs or colour footage of the work, or even a photograph showing the backcloth. ‘The backcloth for Simple Symphony‘, Bradley wrote, ‘depicts a seashore, somewhat after the manner of Christopher Wood. There are two piles of greenish stones, one tall and narrow, one somewhat shorter, and a suggestion of fish nets. There are two wings [flats] on either side, the one nearer the backcloth being light and blue with some nautical decoration, while the front ones are dark brown and reddish brown. Near the front is a low border showing 2 angels & fish nets’.

Bradley goes on to describe the costumes and to discuss the structure of each of the four sections that make up the work. What wonderful resources Bradley’s writings turned out to be.

My previous post on Simple Symphony is a this link.

  • Jane Pritchard

I was delighted too to learn that Jane Pritchard, curator of dance at the V & A, had received an MBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours list. This is belated news, with which I have only just caught up, but congratulations to Jane. How rare it is for someone working in an archival area to be recognised in such a way.

Michelle Potter, 31 March 2014