Mixed bills are very appealing to regular ballet-goers: they provide the chance to see a wide variety of pieces, often pairing new work with rarities, and they showcase the full range of talent within a company. They may also create meaningful connections, whether it be through the work of a choreographer (as with the Royal Ballet’s current Ashton bill), the music of a composer (NYCB’s Hear the Dance series), or an underlying theme.
Earlier this year, English National Ballet brought us the critically acclaimed programme Lest We Forget, an evening of new works commemorating the centenary of the First World War. This season Birmingham Royal Ballet tapped into the same theme with Shadows of War, bringing together works that have been ‘touched in some way by war’. MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour recounts the superficiality of the interwar generation that foreshadows the darkness to come, while Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest recalls Scotland’s history, contrasting romance and conflict. The centrepiece is the recreation of a Robert Helpmann ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals, widely praised at its 1944 premiere, but subsequently lost (as Graham Watts explains in his recent piece for London Dance). It has now been lovingly restored by Gillian Lynne, a member of the original cast.
In short, this is a very intriguing programme of works that are both challenging and unfamiliar. La Fin du Jour was last revived by The Royal Ballet in 2007, and having missed it then, I was keen to see what BRB would make of MacMillan and his depiction of gilded youth at play in the Thirties. With Ian Spurling’s period costumes and sets in chic bright pastels, the designs are a telling counterpoint to the ballet’s sombre ending. My eyes were particularly drawn to Céline Gittens in one of the ‘aviatrix’ roles, as she seemed to truly capture the air of heedless joie de vivre that MacMillan was aiming for.
Miracle in the Gorbals made me think again about the debate regarding reconstructions of lost dance pieces, their place in today’s world and what they say about ballet as an art form. Lynne’s own reconstruction provides us with an opportunity to better understand British ballet and its history. Gorbals is built around a Christ-like story set in industrial Glasgow, and is pure dance-theatre constructed through a series of vignettes that feature character types: the Minister, the Prostitute, the Suicide, the Stranger. BRB’s dancers give it their all, and I was particularly impressed by Iain Mackay’s twisted Minister and Delia Matthews’s suicidal girl. I also enjoyed the pair of young lovers (Yvette Knight and William Bracewell), whose poignant pas de deux contrasts very well with the dramatic intensity of the rest of the piece.
The evening closes with Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest. The ballet gives BRB’s dancers plenty of room to display technical abilities and fancy footwork. In the first part, set to Malcolm Arnold’s Four Scottish Dances, Jamie Bond, Tzu-Chao Chou and Kit Holder threw themselves and their whirling kilts into endless combinations of beaten steps and jumps, while Nao Sakuma, Arancha Baselga and Maureya Lebowitz matched them with quicksilver footwork of their own.
However, the ballet takes on a more serious note in its second part when, set to the music of Britten’s Scottish Ballad, it evokes the Battle of Flodden, one of the bloodiest battles in Scottish history, with a final section that brings everyone back on stage to celebrate past and present. A very effective and fitting ending, given this year’s political developments. These three compelling pieces will give you plenty to reflect on.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Shadows of War continues at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. For tickets and information, visit BRB’s website.