Shadows of War – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Sadlers Wells, London, 17 October 2014

Don’t mention the war!

'She's been kilt!' Birmingham Royal Ballet in Robert Helpmann's Miracle in the Gorbals. Photo by Roy Smiljanic

‘She’s been kilt!’ Birmingham Royal Ballet in Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals. Photo by Roy Smiljanic

Rightly, 2014 has seen plenty of commemorations of the start of the First World War but Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War was rather less focussed.

Originally created for London’s The Royal Ballet in 1979, Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour is actually set on the eve of the Second World War. Glamorous young socialites preen around in brightly coloured swimsuits and evening wear; hemmed in by Ian Spurling’s wonderful art deco surroundings they’re joyfully unaware of the world changing around them.

With everything framed inside Ravel’s Piano Concerto, the first and third movements are a little ho-hum. There are some nice classical duets and Tyrone Singleton and Brandon Lawrence whack out some great leaps and spins but their partnering’s a bit scruffy. But it’s the adagio second movement where MacMillan really struck gold. Having donned their swimming goggles Yvette Knight and Céline Gittens are carried, lifted and pulled around by a team of guys in lazy, carefree depictions of underwater innocence and oblivion. MacMillan’s trademark lifts and frozen postures abound and there are many references to his famous Requiem. It’s wonderfully stitched together and was performed here with perfect sensitivity to the music and the subject.

When Robert Helpmann first created Miracle in the Gorbals for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1944, the gritty realism of a narrative ballet set in the slums of Glasgow must have come as something as a shock to its audience. For years the ballet was kept alive only in memory but Gillian Lynne has re-imagined it by pooling together the recollections of those who performed in the original.

The death-strewn narrative and its quasi-religious overtones hold the attention well and Adam Wiltshire’s designs (after Edward Burra) are effective time-setters. The surprising thing is that there’s not much dancing; it’s more like choreographed acting and stylised movement. Although that comes across a little hammy now, it’s interesting that even in the 1940s the UK’s main classical company was already developing new modernist choreographic languages. Furthermore, it seems to have influenced later choreographers – the hub and sway of the crowd scenes, for example, re-emerge 20 years later in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

Last up was David Bintley’s 1985 classical romp Flowers of the Forest. Apart from using Benjamin Britten’s Scottish Ballad as music (which takes its title from Walter Scott’s ballad about the Battle of Flodden) the connection with war is pretty abstract but it tripped along tidily if unimaginatively. Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond were beautiful in their pas de deux and Jon Goodwin’s blood-speckled backdrop was stunning but that was about it for highlights. And surely Scotland’s rich cultural heritage deserves more than tired stereotypes of wee bonnie lasses and gung-ho lads Highland flinging in very clean kilts.

Gerard Davis

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This entry was posted in Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley, Kenneth MacMillan, Robert Helpmann, Sadler's Wells and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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