Thursday 23 October 2014

A Second Miracle

Sir Robert Helpmann
Photo Wikipedia
In Dancing in the Blitz: How World War 2 Made British Ballet David Bintley spoke of Sadler's Wells Ballet's contribution to maintaining morale during the second world war. Much of the credit belongs to Sir Robert Helpmann who was one of the few male dancers to avoid conscription. He was also a considerable choreographer creating  ComuHamlet, The Birds and Miracle in the Gorbals during that period. The last of those ballets was a particular favourite possibly because it was a story about the conflict between good and evil which would have reminded the public why they were fighting.

The story is based on Jerome K. Jerome's Passing of the Third Floor Back which is a Christian allegory. Jerome's work is set in London and is about the efforts of a Christ figure ("the stranger") to improve the lives of the residents of a boarding house that had been made miserable by a grasping landlady and a well off businessman. The residents listen to the stranger and follow his advice. That upsets the businessman who bribes the residents to turn against the stranger.

Jerome's short story was transposed to Glasgow by Helmpann's partner Michael Benthall who wrote the scenario for the ballet. A young woman throws herself in the river and is dragged out unconscious. A clergyman tries unsuccessfully to revive her.  He covers her with a shroud and leaves her for dead. A stranger appears and revives her. The crowd acclaims the stranger as a miracle worker much to the annoyance of the clergyman whose shortcomings are revealed when he follows a prostitute to her lodging.  He encourages some local gangsters to set about the stranger who is left to die alone on stage with only the a beggar for company.

The music for the ballet was provided by Sir Arthur Bliss a recording of which you can hear on YouTube.   The sets and costumes were designed by Edward Burra (see Pallant House Gallery's Painting the Stage). The cast of the first performance on the 26 Oct 1944 at The Prince's theatre (now the Shaftesbury) included Moira Shearer, Leslie Edwards, Celia Franks, Gerd Larsen, Stanley Holden, Gillian Lynne and Helpmann himself who danced the stranger.

The ballet was included in the repertoire every year between 1944 and 1950 and was taken on tour. It then disappeared from the Sadler's Wells Ballet's repertoire though critics were still referring to it when I first took an interest in ballet in the late 1960s. For some reason the public forgot it in contrast to Martha Graham's Appalachian Spring which was first performed in Washington just four days later and which has much in common with Helpmann's work. No doubt that is because Helpmann developed his acting career though I have seen him dance with Sir Frederick Ashton in Cinderella in the early 1970s. He also compeered Sir Frederick's retirement gala on 24 July 1970 which I was lucky enough to attend.

It was therefore something of a second miracle to see the revival of this work at Sadler's Wells on 18 Oct 2014. Revival is perhaps not quite the right word for as Dame Gilian Lynne said in The Inspiration which was reprinted in the programme: "There are very few people left alive from that 1944 creation and not one of us remembers a step." Lynne has re-created the ballet to Bliss's music in the style of Helpmann and it certainly looks authentic to me. It appears that Burra's set and costume designs did not survive but Adam Wiltshire seems to have come close. The sense of period was conjured by the sounds of an air raid - the drone of an aircraft, explosions, anti-aircraft fire and a siren - all in total darkness before the first few bars of Bliss's score.

Miracle was sandwiched between MacMillan's La Fin du Jour and Bintley's Flowers of the Forest as part of Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shadows of War programme. Each of those ballets is an important work in its own right and therefore merits a separate review. The company had cast some of its strongest dancers for the performance. The stranger was danced by César Morales, the clergyman by Iain Mackay, the prostitute by Elisha Willis and the suicide victim by Delia Matthews.   Even some of the minor roles were danced by accomplished dancers - Marion Tait and Ruth Brill as two of the old ladies - and Yatsuo Atsuji, Brandon Lawrence, Rory McKay and Valentin Olovyannikov as gangsters.

The only other work of Lynne's that I have seen is "A Simple Man" which she choreographed for Northern Ballet to mark the centenary of L S Lowry's birth nearly 30 years ago (see "Northern Ballet's 'A Simple Man'" 14 Sept 2013). That is another ballet set in the back streets of another great industrial city in times gone by. There is much in Miracle that reminds me of A Simple Man. I wonder how much of Simple Man derives from Helpmann.

Other Reviews

Robert Hugill  Miracle in the Gorbals 18 Oct 2014 Planet Hugill

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