BRB Takes Its War Memories to London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel, Bliss, Arnold, Britten, Shadows of War: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia,  Paul Murphy (conductor), Sadler’s Wells, London, 17.10.2014 (J.O’D)

La Fin du jour
Principal Dancers:Yvette Knight, Tyrone Singleton, Céline Gittens, Brandon Lawrence
Solo Piano: Jonathan Higgins
Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Music: Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major
Designs:Ian Spurling
Lighting: John B. Read

Miracle in the Gorbals
The Minister: Iain Mackay
The Prostitute : Elisha Willis
The Suicide: Delia Matthews
The Stranger: César Morales
The Beggar: Michael O’Hare
The Lovers: Yvette Knight, William Bracewell
The Mother: Laura Purkiss
Old Women: Ruth Brill, Jade Heusen, Marion Tait
Evil Urchin: James Barton
Urchins: Laura Day, Miki Mizutani, Yoaqian Shang, Tzu-Chao Chou, Luke Schaufuss
Razor Gang: Yasuo Atsuji, Jonathan Caguioa, Brandon Lawerence, Rory Mackay, Max Maslen, Valentin Olovyannikov
Fish Seller: Lachlan Monaghan
Barman: Benjamin Soerel
Inhabitants of the Gorbals:  Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
Choreography: Gillian Lynne (after Robert Helpmann)
Music: Sir Arthur Bliss
Scenario: Michael Benthall
Designs: Adam Wiltshire (after Edward Burra)
Lighting: Peter Teigen

Flowers of the Forest
Dancers: ao Sakuma, Jamie Bond, Arancha Baselga, Tzu-Chao Chou, Kit Holder, Maureya Lebowitz, Elisha Willis, Mathias Dingman, Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet
Solo Pianos: Jonathan Higgins, Ross Williams
Choreography: David Bintley
Music: Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten
Costumes: Jan Blake
Lighting: Peter Teigen
Backcloth: Jon Goodwin


With the music of Ravel, Bliss, Arnold and Britten played live as it is by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War triple bill can not help but have a powerful effect upon its audience. Add to this the resilient élan of the BRB dancers under their director David Bintley, and what you get is an evening of always serviceable and occasionally poetic dance movement.

Most of the poetry comes in the first of the three works. Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du jour, which premiered in 1979, looks back to 1930s that the choreographer himself must have remembered. Dressed by designer Ian Spurling in the pastel shades of a Marie Laurencin painting, its marcel-waved, swim-suited women and plus-foured men move at first like clockwork automata to the music of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major. Suspended cut-outs of stylised, Art Deco faces stare at each other across the front of the stage. They suggest the conflict to come. The dancers, in their brightly-lit space, seem unaware. At the back of the stage is a door, open to a garden.

Two of the women (Yvette Knight and Céline Gittens) are very soon lifted into the air by five men each (like MacMillan’s Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House this season) and held there as they adopt different poses. Their goggles now make them look like Amelia Earhart, but also like World War II pilots. The woman have only slightly more agency when they return to the ground to set each other off on directionless bourrées around the stage. The saddest moment, though (sadder even than the final closing of the garden door), is when, at exactly the right point in the slow section of Ravel’s music for it, the men execute in unison the swing of a golf club and the follow through. ‘Very nice,’ the woman beside me was moved to say, to no one in particular, at the end of this colourful, poignant ballet. She spoke, I think, for the audience as a whole.

Gillian Lynne was one of the original cast of Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals, first danced by Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1944. She claims, in the programme notes, that neither she nor anyone else who was in it can remember a step (by a choreographer for whom, I have read elsewhere, ballet was ‘essentially a theatrical art’). So this 2014 recreation is by Lynne ‘after Robert Helpmann’ as the designs are by Adam Wiltshire ‘after Edward Burra’. It is an odd tale of death and resurrection in the slums of Glasgow, to music composed by Arthur Bliss. Despite its vivid palette, interesting grouping of dancers, and the strength of the company as actor-dancers in this ensemble work, it seemed to provoke mild amusement (or bemusement) among the Sadler’s Wells audience of today. Except, that is, during the violent, well choreographed murder scene towards the end.

David Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest (from 1985), like the three of his works that Birmingham Royal Ballet brought to Sadler’s Wells a year ago, filled the stage with energetic movement that seems too much at one level, or too much at one pace, or that spaces its dancers too evenly about the stage. In this case it is a balletic version of Scottish Highland dancing. The dancers (Tzu-Chao Chou in particular) perform with unrelenting, fast-paced relish. The switch from the music of Malcolm Arnold to that of Benjamin Britten slowed things down for a duet between Mathias Dingman and Elisha Willis (whose first arabesque, minutes after she appears, stilled the audience). Clouds on the backdrop turn to a troubled red; the colours of the kilts worn by the men in the later sections resemble those of the camouflage of British soldiers. The title is that of a folk tune played now at ‘funerals, memorials, and occasions of public mourning such as Armistice Day’.

See also on this website a review of this triple bill at Birmingham Hippodrome (8.10.2014)

John O’Dwyer

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