Birmingham Royal Ballet Shine Through Their Shadows of War

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ravel, Bliss, Arnold, Britten: Shadows of War La Fin du jour, Flowers of the Forest and  Miracle in the Gorbals: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia  Paul Murphy (conductor), Birmingham Hippodrome, 8.10.2014 (GR).

La Fin du jour

Music: Maurice Ravel
Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Designs: Ian Spurling
Lighting: John B. Read
Principal Dancers: Nao Sakuma, Maureya Lebowitz, Jamie Bond, Mathias Dingman

In this triple bill of one act ballets, each touched in some way by war, the most striking impression of this Kenneth MacMillan creation was the dazzling kaleidoscope of colour displayed by all the dancers. This effect was emphasised by the minimalistic set of Ian Spurling – essentially a bare stage save for an open rear centre door. In the first of the four basic divisions, the Birmingham Royal Ballet corps and four principal dancers established a happy-go-lucky ambiance, a ‘la plage’ lifestyle, available to those who could afford it during the bleak 1930s. With their automaton-type gesticulations and free flowing movements, these BRB dancers were distinctly ‘cool’ in their beachwear, bathing suits that were definitely designed in Andrews Sisters tradition to ‘never get wet’. It was a scene that could well have gone with the music of Sandy Wilson, but nevertheless the distinctive style of Maurice Ravel seemed equally apt; the first seeds of the conflict to come were being sown. The second section underlined how apposite the French composer was to this ballet;  his variations on a dreamy motif beautifully endorsed on the piano by Jonathan Higgins. And this slow tempo had allowed Macmillan to create an enchanting pas de deux, fabulously executed by Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond.

Having demonstrated his flair for the melodic line, Higgins then showed he could also master the left hand fluidity of Ravel in the difficult third section. With Maureya Lebowitz and Mathias Dingman now occupying centre stage, the Californian Maureya Lebowitz who joined BRB in 2011, proved she was the equal of her established counterpart Sakuma, and with Dingman performed Macmillan’s complex manoeuvres and lifts with aplomb; this couple seem to be forming an attractive and reliable Birmingham partnership. As the dancers seemed to become even more oblivious to anything that might disturb their idyll, something does: the rear door is slammed shut and the lights go out; symbolically it is the end of an era, heralding the monumental changes the Second World War would generate.

In the programme notes Deborah Macmillan is quoted with reference to her husband’s observation that ballet is a puzzle, and the choreographer has to find the missing piece. She said ‘he was frustrated by how a ballet would start off as one thing and then something would happen and very, very quickly it became something else’. Surely this is one of this art form’s attributes and why Kenneth Macmillan was such a success. This rendition of La Fin du jour proved that.

Photo Bill Cooper
Miracle in the Gorbals  Photo Bill Cooper

Miracle in the Golubs

Music: Sir Arthur Bliss
Choreography: Gillian Lynne (assisted by Jeremy Kerridge) after Robert Helpmann
Scenario: Michael Benthall
Designs: Adam Wiltshire after Edward Burra
Lighting :Peter Teigen
Principal Characters:
The Prostitute: Elisha Willis
The Suicide:   Delia Matthews
The Minister: Iain Mackay
The Strange: César Morales

Miracle in the Gorbals had its Robert Helpmann production premiere in 1944 and is regarded as the first English ballet to have a working class setting. Michael Benthall (Helpmann’s partner) devised the plot, loosely basing it on Jerome K Jerome’s short story of a stranger intent upon redeeming the fallen, The Passing of the Third Floor Back, but relocating it to a Glasgow slum. Despite very little being remembered by the survivors of that original cast, one of them, Dame Gillian Lynne set about re-creating this pioneering dance drama. Utilising some of the original set designs of Edward Burra together with assistance from ballet teacher Jeremy Kerridge and the resources of BRB, a stunning spectacle has been realised. The performance on Oct 8th at the Birmingham Hippodrome was deemed to be its world premiere; judging by its reception it must surely become repeatable repertoire.


In some ways it carried on where La Fin du jour ended. The sounds of war including gun-fire, explosions and air raid sirens were all too familiar and preceded the stirring orchestral prelude of Bliss. Played alongside a front cloth that illustrated an industrial shipyard complete with cranes and derricks, the smog and grime of Clydeside was in utter contrast to the previous spin of Macmillan. When the Gorbals set was revealed, the locals were shown to be eking out a living: urchins, typified by an animated Laura Day, and old women in aprons and shawls including typified by BRB Assistant Director Marion Tait, two character actors of the finest at opposite ends of the experience spectrum. The tenements had been credibly crafted and the washing hanging on a line between two adjacent apartments was a dry touch. The subtle lighting of Peter Teigen added to this depiction of the Gorbals. Said not to be a carbon copy of seventy years previous, current designer Adam Wiltshire had done a great piece of Burra restoration.

In Miracle, the narrative is everything; the niceties of ballet take a back seat. Central to the plot are the attempts to revive The Suicide’s drowned corpse, first by The Minister (see photo, Bill Cooper) and then by The Stranger, both invoking the help of their respective fathers. The latter succeeds where the former failed. Having lost his street-cred, the man with the dog-collar arranges to murder his usurper. There were many dynamic portrayals, particularly the two women redeemed by The Stranger: Delia Matthews as The Suicide, a frightened, distraught individual with nothing to live for, raised like Lazarus and given new purpose.  Birmingham favourite Elisha Willis barely recognisable as The Prostitute in her slinky little red dress, black wig and high heels, a 20th century Mary Magdalene. The Minister’s fall from grace was made patently apparent by the acting of Iain Mackay, metamorphosing from a self-righteous man of the cloth to an associate of the Razor Gang hit-men. César Morales exuded presence as a saintly Stranger, befittingly moving with style and grace. Yvette Knight and William Bracewell made a pair of attentive lovers, while Michael O’Hare, another of the BRB beloved, sporting a fiddle and spreading happiness was a cartoon of a Beggar. But the biggest cheer of the whole evening came at Miracle’s curtain – for the eighty-eight years young Dame Gillian who had fruitfully transported the Helpmann magic into the 21st century.

Flowers of the Forest_BRB;FOUR SCOTTISH DANCES_Nao Sakuma, Iain Mackay, Arancha Baselga, Tzu-Chao Chou,  Kit Holder,  Angela Paul,SCOTTISH BALLAD_Elisha Willis, Mathias Dingman ,
“Flowers in the Forest” Photo:Bill Cooper

 Flowers of the Forest

Music:  Malcolm Arnold & Benjamin Britten
Choreography: David Bintley
Costumes: Jan Blake
Lighting: Peter Teigen

Backcloth: Jon Goodwin

Principal Dancers:

  1. Four Scottish Dances : Nao Sakuma & Iain Mackay with Arancha Baselga, Maureya Lebowitz, Tzu-Chao Chou and Kit Holder
  2. Scottish Ballard: Elisha Willis and Mathias Dingman

No ballet trio in Birmingham would be complete without a major contribution from David Bintley, and his Flowers of the Forest completed the programme. In two parts, the second half did contain resonances of war, but for me this item was more about Scotland. This was immediately evident from the kilted dancers and the magnificent mists and hues of Jon Goodwin’s impressionistic backdrop, romantically representing the ‘Land of the mountain and the flood’. That Scottish lilt of Hamish MacCunn was present in the music that was used for the four brief dances that made up the first half – Malcolm Arnold’s ‘Four Scottish Dances’. Arnold’s music had a distinct Scottish flavour, a mood clearly caught by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. Under Paul Murphy the orchestra were in fine form. Although there were no bagpipes to sound the pibroch loud and high, other sounds were particularly notable: the snatches of serenade from leader Robert Gibbs; the opportune use of a shrill whistle; an unusual opening scored for two pianos – Ross Williams joining Jonathan Higgins for a resonant duet. To an extent we had reprised to the milieu of La Fin du Jour, a mood the dancers led by Sakuma and Glaswegian MacKay captured (see photo, Roy Smiljanic); such gay abandon was epitomised by the freedom allowed to wearers of the flailing kilts, although the suggestion of a ‘drunk’ was somewhat puzzling.

With the switch to the music of Benjamin Britten, the ‘chocolate box image’ of Scotland had gone – the shadow of war took hold once more as the views of a young pacifist composer emanated from Britten’s  ‘Scottish Ballad’. One of its folk-inspired themes gave the item it title – The Flowers of the Forest, a ballad  dating from when the flower of Scottish youth perished on Flodden Field in 1513. Bintley’s choreography caught the memorial nature of that lament, asking the question posed by Pete Seegar: Where have all the flowers gone?

A superb evening of dance from BRB that resonated with issues of today without loss in entertainment value. For full details of tour dates for Shadows of War visit the BRB website.

Geoff Read


Leave a Comment