Sunday, 19 October 2014

Shadows of War

La Fin du Jour/ Miracle in the Gorbals/ Flowers of the Forest, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Sadler's Wells - reviewed on 17th October
  
Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond in
La Fin du Jour
Photo: Roy Smiljanic
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War is a real contrast to its fairy tale Beauty and the Beast performed earlier in the week. The triple bill’s links to war are tenuous, but its range of emotion – from elation to despair – is captivating.
  
Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour opens the evening. Bursting in through a door at the back of the stage, a group of enthusiastic young people enjoy swimming, flirting and dancing. Set to a score by Maurice Ravel and led by Yvette Knight, Tyrone Singleton, Céline Gittens and Brandon Lawrence, the ballet is filled with joy and exuberance. Only right at the end does the impending war become clear when the onstage door is closed and dancers freeze as the lights go down.
  
The bill’s weakest work, David Bintley’s Scottish-themed Flowers of the Forest, ends the performance. Commencing with a playful and humorous section for four dancers in tartan, the ballet quickly becomes tiresome in the later, more sombre group numbers.
 
Sandwiched between these two works is Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann's 1944 Miracle in the Gorbals. Set in the slums of Glasgow and with evocative designs (including high windows with skeletal figures looking out) by Adam Wiltshire (after Edward Burra), the ballet’s setting and narrative bear more than a passing resemblance to MacMillan’s The Judas Tree.
   
Amidst the busy crowds of lovers, shopkeepers and beggars, a girl – performed beautifully by Delia Matthews – dances a desperate solo before deciding to commit suicide. As her body is brought up from the river, desolate crowds gather until a mysterious Stranger (César Morales) emerges and is able – miraculously – to bring her back to life. Horrified at being outshone, the Minister (Iain Mackay) attempts unsuccessfully to humiliate the Stranger and finally – through the actions of a local gang – kills him.

Delia Mathews and Iain Mackay in Miracle in the Gorbals
Photo: Roy Smiljanic

What struck me most about the ballet was how well it was able to convey its characters’ self-loathing. Both the Suicide and the Minister are driven to violence by their self-hatred and lack of others’ approval. I was also impressed by the way in which the very simple choreography was performed by BRB’s dancers to create such a clear and compelling narrative. 
  
Miracle in the Gorbals is a real gem, and it’s wonderful that Gillian Lynne has brought it back to life (just as the Stranger does with the Suicide). It was certainly the highlight of the Shadows of War bill and is a testament to the talents of Birmingham Royal Ballet – not only in performing it so effectively onstage but also in commissioning and realising its reincarnation.

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