Casting an elegant shadow

iain Mackay as the minister

Soul searching: Iain Mackay as the minister helpless to save the lifeless Delia Mathews who has been dragged from the Clyde after committing suicide Picture: Roy Smiljanic

Shadows of War

Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

A WORLD Premiere of any ballet is always an event and, seventy years on, Miracle of the Gorbals has a backstory to tell all of its own.

First performed in 1944 in the midst of the Second World War and created by Australian Robert Helpmann, it has been recreated, re-imagined and refashioned into what is a homage to the original.

The Miracle was last performed in 1958 and with no record of the choreography dancers still around from the Helpmann original pooled their recollections of fragments of the choreography, steps here and there, which were collected by Dame Gillian Lynne, who, has an 18-year-old had performed in the 1944 original.

Lynne, who adored Helpmann, took those snatches from collective memory, her own recollections and, allied to her considerable skills as a choreographer and director, she created a new ballet.

Designer Adam Wiltshire had an easier job in that the design for the front cloth of a ship in dry-dock in the Clyde had been saved as had Edward Burra’s set models but when it came to costumes he was on his own, so gave us 1940’s working class outfits with plenty of flat caps and shawls. It worked perfectly.

The ballet itself is set among the tenements of the Gorbels in the poorest part of Glasgow and sees a sad young woman at the end of her tether, danced by Delia Mathews, Cesar Marales as the strangerwho commits suicide in the river which gathers a crowd when her body is recovered and the puritanical, humourless minister, danced by Iain Mackay, arrives but fails to revive her and so looks to save her soul.

Enter the mysterious stranger, danced by César Morales, who hushes the crowd and despite some skepticism from Makay’s preacher man, brings the woman back to life – cue adulation and instant hero worship by the crowd . . . and a minister with a nose very much put out of joint.

Leap of faith: César Morales as the Stranger  Picture: Roy Smiljanic

We meet a diverse collection of charcters such as the lovers, danced by Yvette Knight and William Bracewell and the Gorbals gossips, three old women led by, you guessed it, Marion Tait who has cornered the market in crones, who is joined by Ruth Brill and Jade Heuson, and then there is what is described in the cast list as the Evil Urchin, danced in short pants, that’s his costume not his breathing, by James Barton.

And then there is Elisha Willis in the scarlet dress which should be a clue to her rather ancient profession as a lady of the night

She is confronted by the minister who sees it his mission to save the men of the street from her charms – until he finds himself alone with her when praying for her soul appears to be easier to do upstairs and horizontally.

With the stranger still the local hero the minister a plot is hatched and the Rev uses the urchin to persuade the new star on the block to go up to the aid of a sick woman, in reality the prostitute, to knock his street cred with the peasantry, which only works until the prostitute emerges, a changed woman, her past life behind her, leaving the people even more n awe of the starnger's powers.

The minister, doubly miffed, then calls upon the ultimate Gorbals’ deterrent, the razor gang, who don’t mess about, quickly leaving the stranger an ex-stranger, dying in the arms of an old beggar, danced by Michael O’Hare.

The ballet has a strong narrative, and narratives of unknown stories are ntt the easiest to portray in dance, which after all is mime when to comes to story telling, but the large cast, with urchins, passers by, the gang and so on, manage to convey the miracle well in an effective gloomy set.

Music by Arthur Bliss is dramatic in a story which covers jealousy, redemption, salvation, romance and despair . . . and the message that it was dangerous to upset a Gorbals’ minister.

The ballet, depressing as it is, was apparently very popular during and just after the war, when I suppose it caught a mood those of us who were not there have never experienced.

Gillian Lynne joined the cast on stage at the end and although it would not be be gallant to announce her age, but suffice to say people 40 years her junior would struggle to keep up, she isthe prostitute a remarkable lady.

Either side of the main event were two very different dances, the first La Fin du Jour, performed on a large art deco set designed by Ian Spurling. The piece is set to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major with choreography by Kenneth Macmillan and a fine solo piano part from Jonathan Hggins.

Set in the 1930s it is a ballet of gay young things with two lead couples, Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond, Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman, with both ballerinas, who danced beautifully with some perfect synchronisation, becoming involved in some rather sensuous dances among a crowd of men from the company.

The costumes were pastel and initially of the era as you might have imagined at the Venice Lido of the 1930s, with the to lead ballerinas remaining in bathing costumes as the men reappeared in silk tails in the same pastel shades. The ballet was said to represent the hedonistic lifestyle of the gay young things in the 30s with the clouds of war gathering to change their lives forever. Without programme notes it was a celebration of art deco in dance.

A dance on the wild side: Elisha Willis as the Prostitute and Iain Mackay as the Minister; Picture: Bill Cooper

The final ballet, Flowers of the Forest, had no such message although programme notes indicate the second dance, Scottish Ballad, exquisitely danced by Elisha Willis and Mathias Dingman, showed a young Benjamin Britten’s pacifist views, not that you would know without being told.

The opening with music by Malcolm Arnold, was just fun, four Scottish dances with Nao Sakuma and Iain Mackay, Arancha Baselga, Tzu-Chao Chou, Kiit Holder – the pair did a lovely drunken Scotsmen dance – and Maureya Lebowitz.

Choreographed by BRB Director David Bintley this was a light hearted and upbeat end to a night of ballet which had something for everyone from whimsy to murder, kilts to a sword dance around drunken Scotsmens' legs.

Music, from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, under Paul Murphy, as always was up to the high standard we have come to expect.

It is a night of variety with some glorious dancing, fine acting telling a dark tale in wartime Glasgow, and ending with light hearted fun. To 11-10-14.

Roger Clarke

08-10-14 

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