This collection of essays, articles and interviews, accompanied by a DVD, is enlightening, entertaining and scholarly. Robert Helpmann joined the Vic Wells Ballet in 1933, and was a major influence in the development of ballet in England, but despite being the subject of three biographies (by Elizabeth Salter, Anna Bemrose, and Kathrine Sorley Walker), by the early years of this century his fame was fading and his choreographic work Miracle in the Gorbals (1944) was almost lost.

The story of this ballet’s miraculous recovery threads through the book, and draws together memories, commentary, film footage and analysis.The opening chapter consists of several short articles by Helpmann himself, and Chapter Three republishes an article from 1950 by Audrey Williamson, but most of the material is entirely new. In addition to fascinating articles by the editors Richard Allen Cave and Anna Meadmore on Helpmann as an actor, and on his use of theatrical make-up, there are contributions from an array of distinguished dance scholars and practitioners. These include Jennifer Jackson, on Helpmann’s use of choreographic gestures; Geraldine Morris on his work on the films The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), and Jane Pritchard on the design of his wartime ballets. The DVD includes interviews with Beryl Grey and Maina Gielgud, new documentary footage by David Drew, Nigel Hodgson and Michael Byrne, and extracts from Lynne Wake’s film Dancing in the Dark (2007). The film of Pauline Clayden teaching Kristen McNally the solo from role of The Suicide, which she created in 1944, is remarkable.

The book and DVD are hugely enjoyable on many levels; for amusing anecdotes and narrative, as an historical account of the development of English ballet seen through the lens of the art of a great theatrical artist, and for raising and debating interesting questions about how to understand and (re)construct lost dances. The extensive endnotes to each chapter both elucidate and enlarge on the text, and are in themselves a pleasure to read. There are seventy-six well chosen illustrative black and white photographs.

It is immensely fortunate that this book exists at all. The symposium from which it springs resulted from the work of the late David Drew to recover Miracle in the Gorbals before it was forgotten, and although some of those interviewed or recorded participating in the workshops are still with us, some, sadly, are not (most notably Gillian Lynne, who restaged the ballet for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014 at the age of eighty-eight). Cave and Meadmore’s work captures the turning point at which a ballet by an exceptional creative artist was rediscovered just in time for new audiences and younger dancers to enjoy and experience it. Highly readable, this book makes an important contribution to our understanding of ballet in England and its relationship with other contemporaneous theatrical art forms, and brings to life the work of one the twentieth century’s great performers of dance. It is essential reading for students with an academic interest in dance, and will make a lovely Christmas present for anyone who remembers Helpmann on stage or screen, or who enjoys reading about the early history of the company that became the Royal Ballet.

Maggie Watson

12th December 2018

Richard Allen Cave & Anna Meadmore eds. (2018)  Robert Helpmann: the many faces of a theatrical dynamo  Published by Dance Books