Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill with ballets by Kenneth MacMillan, Gillian Lynne after Robert Helpmann, and David Bintley, is a subtle commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. The approach to the subject is oblique compared with the English National Ballet’s innovative programme Lest We Forget, premiered at the Barbican earlier this year, but it works.

Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour evokes the heady days of the years between the wars, the dancers wearing in pastel coloured costumes, their fashionable sportiness reminiscent of some of the later Diaghilev ballets. They are Bright Young Things but they move like puppets on strings in their cream coloured box, from which we glimpse a garden through a door at the back of the stage. The two principal women dancers (Arancha Baselga and Karla Doorbar) morph from swimmers into aviators as their male attendants sweep them through the air, or turn them on point, slowly spinning them like skaters, feet held high behind their heads, weather vanes revolving in the wind. At the end one of them symbolically closes the door to the garden. An idyll is over and war is coming.

Miracle in the Gorbals, with its emotive score by Arthur Bliss, is a shocking re-enactment of the familiar story of the saviour who is betrayed and murdered by those he has come to save. Created by Robert Helpmann in 1944, the original choreography is lost. My mother, who saw the earlier production with Helpmann, Moira Shearer and Julia Farron in the cast, remembers it as chiefly drama and mime, and Gillian Lynne’s recreation for BRB is remarkable for the strength of its narrative. Set during the war amongst the poverty of the Glasgow tenements at first we see a dockyard. In the centre, downstage, a red light winks from within an ominous moving mass that turns out to be the dancers, gathered close together. This is a ballet about the power of the crowd and our vulnerability to mass manipulation: the collective reaction to the Suicide’s death; the shared disapproval of the Prostitute; the gang murder of the Stranger – all have a horrible resonance for society today. Lynne’s staging clearly draws on photographic stills, but it is not in any way a pastiche of the original. Iain Mackay as the Minister is both cruel and tormented, Delia Mathews a wonderfully supple Suicide and Elisha Willis a powerfully seductive Prostitute, who is redeemed through Cesar Morales’ charismatic presence as the Stranger.

The evening culminated with David Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest. This piece gives a very different but no less tragic vision of Scotland. Falling into two parts, the opening section, Four Scottish Dances is happy and humorous, even including a couple of delightful drunks. The second part, Scottish Ballad, in which the gorgeous backdrop is flooded with blood-red light, alludes to the slaughter at Flodden Field. Momoko Hirata, partnered by Jamie Bond, gave a memorably expressive performance, notable for the elegance and expanse of her port de bras and the way that she engaged with the audience. I loved this ballet for its romanticism without false sentiment and its sense of loss.

Maggie Watson

19th October 2014

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