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

Monday, 20 October 2014

Manon Encore at the Huddersfield Odeon

I did not book tickets for this season's Manon at the Royal Opera House for two reasons. One was a very good reason and the other not so good.

Taking the good reason first, one can't see everything because there are not enough hours in the day and not enough noughts in my bank balance. If I saw everything that I want to see at the Royal Ballet I would never have time or money for anything else. Now I know the Royal Ballet is the gold standard and I love it dearly but that does not mean that everything else is rubbish. My beloved Northern won the Taglioni award this year and there is great work coming out of Birmingham, Glasgow as well as Leeds not to mention places like Grantham, Newport and Taynuilt, all of which deserves attention, criticism and support.

The less than good reason is that I am a Sibley fan (see Ballerina 1 July 2013). Manon was created for Dame Antoinette as she recalled at her talk to the London Jewish Cultural Centre on 1 Feb 2014 (Le jour de gloire est arrive - Dame Antoinette Sibley with Clement Crisp at the Royal Ballet School 3 Feb 2014). I was afraid that I would be disappointed by anyone else in the role. A moment's reflection would have persuaded me that such a fear was groundless for many reasons not least of which is the fact that Sibley is coaching modern ballerinas in that role. But the real clincher came when I saw the rehearsal on World Ballet DayMarianela Nuñez is not Sibley but as you can see from the clip she is a very convincing Manon.

As it was too late to book for the House and as I was busy on Thursday I decided to see the encore at Huddersfield Odeon this afternoon and very good it was too. This is a gruelling role demanding a lot from the ballerina and her partner but Nuñez was up for it as was Federico Bonelli who danced des Grieux. They were strongly supported by Ricardo Cervera as Manon's brother Lescaut, Christopher Saunders as GM and Gary Avis as the gaoler of the penal colony.

The presentation was a lot better than in previous years with interesting interviews with Kevin O''Hare, Nuñez and Bonelli though the Royal Opera House are still some way behind Pathe-Live. They  could do themselves a favour by omitting the gushing but in many cases ill-informed tweets which are very irritating for those of us who actually do go to the ballet regularly.  The Bolshoi and Pathe-Live do not see the need to do that and neither should Covent Garden.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Ey Up from Upperthong

I've just come back from a jaunt to t'Smoke. I should've got back three hours ago but some blighters closed the M1 between junctions 15 and 18 which decanted the North bound carriageway of one of the busiest motorways into a country lane. Not only that but they put up downright misleading diversion signs which led me on a magic mystery tour of the East Midlands. Just the sort of jolly jape one appreciates in the wee small hours of the morning.

Any road as it is now too late to get any decent kip I'll tell thee about my adventures in the Great Wen. I'd gone down to see two shows, Birmingham Royal Ballet's Shadows of War at Sadler's Wells in the afternoon and MurleyDance's Hail Britannia at The Shaw Theatre in the evening. Both shows were outstanding though in different ways and, to some extent, actually complementary. As I think I am the only person on the planet to have seen the two shows back to back I count myself very fortunate.

 "To begin at the beginning", I arrived at the Wells early to meet LinMM from BalletcoForum who is lovely. Shortly afterwards we were joined by Don Q Fan and Aileen who are also very sweet. I had already met Don Q Fan at The Lowry in January and we get on like a house of fire. Aileen I had not met before and it was lovely to put a name to a face. The four of us had a fair old chin wag about ballet before the bell summoned us to our seats.

I'm going to do a proper review of both shows later in the week. All I will say about Shadows of War for the moment is that I enjoyed all three ballets but Miracle in the Gorbals was enthralling. It started off eerily with the sound of planes, explosions, anti-aircraft fire and sirens and then Sir Arthur Bliss's wonderful score, A museum piece? Not at all. Think of religious fundamentalism. It's as relevant today as it was in wartime.

Miracle was preceded by La Fin du Jour with striking set designs and even more striking choreography. Two movements in particular took my breath away. The way in which two of the women were thrown through the air and caught again and then a spring several feet in air by two of the men from a prone position. I really felt for them.

The triple bell was polished off by Flowers of the Forest with the men in kilts and the women in tartan skirts and green bonnets and jackets. I would have dressed the ladies in white gowns with tartan sashes as women used to dress for ceilidhs and Highland balls many years ago. The back drop of hills and swirling mist was very effective. I loves two scenes in particular - one of a couple of drunks staggering and eventually collapsing with the girls dancing something like the Huntley over their spread eagled limbs and a lovely lyrical pas de deux where the man performed an ecstatic tour en l'air flooding Burns's verse into my mind.

While we were dissecting the Miracle Don Q Fan noticed a VERY IMPORTANT PERSON from the Royal Ballet whom our mutual friend from Liverpool greatly admires. I won't steal Don Q Fan's thunder by saying who it is but suffice it to say that a photo was taken of VIP and I was the one fumbling with Don Q Fan's mobile as bells rang and folk scurried back to their seats with VIP graciously standing. He even waited for a second photo with me in the piccy.

So after chatting away merrily for another hour we four musketeers went our separate ways. My next stop was the Shaw to see Hail Britannia. One might have thought that this would have been an anticlimax after Shadows of War but it wasn't. It was just as good but in a very different way. First we were clapping and tapping to Anaish Parmar's  Shaadi. It was good to see a balletic interpretation  of the song and dance routines that always seems to work themselves into Hindi films. I loved the henna party, the use of pointe and the mother in law reminding me of a very, very, very dear friend.

Next up was Wayward Kinship by the amazingly young Richard Chappell. That had a lot in common with Miracle in the Gorbals in that it also dealt with religion pushed to extremes and the hero coming to a very sticky end.

Then came Frisky Claptrap a love triangle between three backpackers, two blokes and a girl, against a background of  trains and quaint British place names. One of those quaint sounding place names was Upperthong which is a village in the Holme Vallet where I lived for 7 years. I now live in one of the neighbouring villages a couple of miles away. Above is a picture of Upperthong which is right on the edge of the Pennines and thus endures one of the wettest and windiest climates in the country. Other places that tickled David Murley's funny bone were Cockfosters, Fannyfield and Llanfair­pwllgwyn­gyllgo­gery­chwyrn­drobwll­llanty­silio­gogo­goch. If you want to know how to pronounce the last place name watch Newport State of Mind. A quick memo to David. We also have a place called Netherthong in our valley. Thong, nether garments. Did thou miss a trick, lad?

Finally there was Murley's Highgrove Suite which was the piece de resistance. What it had to do with Prince Charles's country pad was not obvious but there was some cracking choreography.   As I say, I'll review it properly in the fullness of time. I last saw MurleyDance in December (see MurleyDance Triple Bill 2 Dec 2014). The company was good then and is even better now. I can't wait for its first full length ballet next year.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

MurleyDance Hail Britannia

This time last week I saw Sarah Kundi in English National Ballet's Swan Lake (see "What Manchester does today" 10 Oct 2014). She led me to Ballet Black, one of my favourite companies (see "Ballet Black's Appeal" 12 March 2013), and introduced me to the work of Christopher Marney (see "Christopher Marney" 16 March 2014).  I saw Ballet Black perform Marney's latest ballet Dogs don't do Ballet  on Saturday. Sarah Kundi also led me to another great company, MurleyDance, for which she danced before joining ENB ("MurleyDance Triple Bill" 2 Dec 2013). I shall see that company's latest work, Hail Britanniathis Saturday. I am grateful for her for leading me to MurleyDance too.

MurleyDance is taking Hail Britannia on tour. The programme,  includes works by Richard Chappell, Anaish Parmar and David Murley. Chappell's work considers the relationship between Henry II and Thomas Beckett. Knowing the Anouilh play as I do, I am expecting a lot from this work.  Coinciding with diwali, Parmar's  Shaadi is about Hindu wedding traditions in modern Britain. Murley has two works in the mixed programme, Frisky Claptrap which makes fun of British place names like Cockfosters and Fannyfield, and Highgrove Suite which is about a young girl's transition into womanhood.

The show is coming to the Shaw Theatre on Saturday where I shall be. It will them move to Epsom on the 22nd and Cheltenham on the 25th.  The telephone numbers and websites of the theatres where Hail Britannia is to be performed are on the company's website.

The company depends on the public for support and you can donate or sponsor its work through its website.

Sunday, 12 October 2014


The day I danced in public I presented the nearest I have to a grandson with a copy of Anna Kemp's Dogs don't do Ballet. A few weeks earlier I had actually met the extraordinarily gifted young choreographer, Christopher Marney, and scolded myself for not thinking of asking him to sign that book because Cassa Pancho had told me that Ballet Black had commissioned Marney to base a ballet on that book a few weeks before the official announcement. Ironically I met two other choreographers, David Nixon and Kenneth Tindall, the day after I had performed and I could have asked either of them to sign something else for little Vladimir but it wouldn't have been the same. Anyway, yesterday the first performances of Dogs don't do ballet took place in Harlow and I was there with three year old Vlad to see the show.

The ballet is for children aged 3 or over so the acid test is: "what did a 3 year old child think of the show?" Well Vlad the Lad liked it.  In his short life he has seen no less than three ballets if you count the Northern Ballet Academy's end of term show (and I think you must because there were some good performances in that show which more than made up for my poor efforts) and he liked them all. But he particularly liked Dogs don't do Ballet for he sat through the whole 50 minutes quite entranced. He's an active boy and to hold his attention for all that time says a lot about the show. So guys, you passed the Vlad test.

So what did this 65 year old think of it?  I loved it. Though it was a children's ballet there was plenty to appeal to grown ups. For instance, the ballet teacher, Miss Polly, swigging from her hip flask and sleeping through her students' barre exercises.  She was danced by Christopher Renfurm who has blossomed as a character dancer. He is a good Slvador Dali but a brilliant ballet teacher. Though I am glad to say that none of my ballet teachers is anything like Miss Polly, Renfurm fitted the popular stereotype of a ballet teacher to a tee. The expression of delight on Anna's face changing to embarrassment upon her first kiss was another moment to savour. Marie Astrid Mence, Ballet Black's latest recruit, was an adorable Anna. The study of canine behaviour by Cira Robinson - so familiar to anyone who has ever kept a dog - was yet another delight. There was Bif's whining, her friendly slathering over Miss Polly, the playfulness with which she toyed with a tutu and her pas de deux with a dalmatian. Just like a real dog - in fact, just like Harvey*.

As I said in my appreciation of Christopher Marney the quality that distinguishes him from other choreographers is his remarkable sensitivity to music. This was reflected in the construction of the score - Ketèlbey, Baranowski, Strauss, plenty of Tchaikovsky and above all Fauré's Dolly Suite - and of course the interpretation of that score. The movements that he created were extraordinary - particularly those that required Robinson, Kanika Carr and JoséAlves to dance on all fours. Also the barre exercises - the foundering "Kanikova" -  with a French horn over her head - and of course Bif's pas de deux. I was already quite a Marney fan before I saw that ballet and my admiration for his work is now even greater.

All the dancers seemed to have fun - Isabela Coracy as the coquettish Felicia with her poodle (Carr) and her pink mobile. Jacob Wye as the bashful TJ, Damian Johnson as the kindly dad - and it showed in their wit and exuberance.   Gary Harris's costumes - particularly Robinson's dog suit and Miss Polly's hats and shawls - were inspired. So, too, was James Lewis's set and of course David Plater's lighting.   I ought to say a word about the programme which was unusually cheap but also very informative and came with a set of crayons for colouring Bif in her tutu.  I now know which dancer keeps a pet and what it is. Although I have only met a few of them briefly on one occasion I feel I now know them.  I am looking forward to seeing them all in Leeds on 6 Nov 2014.

This show is moving on to Bournemouth on the 19 and Exeter on the 21 Oct and finally to Winchester on 29 Nov. If you live anywhere near those towns - or even if you don't - do go and see it.  Yesterday, Chris Marney's dad asked me how many miles I had driven for the show. The answer is 520 and the ballet was well worth every inch of the journey.

Post Script
I am starting a resource page on that company at Extra Special - Ballet Black at the Linbury 26 Feb 2014 27 Feb 2014

There are some lovely pictures of Dogs don't do Ballet on Ballet Black's Facebook page.

*The pet dog of one of my ballet teachers

Friday, 10 October 2014

What Manchester does today

English National Ballet, Swan Lake, Palace Theatre, Manchester 9 Oct 2014

Isn't it lovely when someone achieves his ambition? On James Forbat's profile the following words appear:
"Roles would love to dance
Romeo, Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake"
Well yesterday in Manchester Mr Forbat danced that role and he did very well indeed.  Of course, he had the benefit of an adorable Odette-Odile in Erina Takehashi. Yesterday was the first time I had seen her (or at any rate the first time I had noticed her) and she impressed me considerably. She was a very convincing Odette in the prologue and second act - so delicate and feminine - and I couldn't imagine her as Odette but the lady is tough as well as beautiful and she is also an accomplished actor. She danced the seduction scene even more brilliantly than she had danced Odette.

Many of my other favourites were also in the show: Arionel Vargas as Rothbart, Lauretta Summerscales, Michael Coleman and Sarah Kundi. It was a great pleasure to see them all again.

I have seen a lot of Swan Lakes in my time but this is one of the best. There were some very nice touches like the prologue with Odette as a girl plucking the petals of a daisy before Rothbart turns her into a swan. I also liked the divertissements particularly the Neapolitan dance which seems to have reinstated Ashton's original choreography. It was also good to see Peter Farmer's designs.

Appropriately this production will start in Manchester and move on  to Milton Keynes, Liverpool and London. Manchester was the first city outside London where Festival (as the company was originally called) performed. Manchester was where Laverne Meyer founded Northern Ballet. Manchester was going to be a  Northern hub for the Royal Opera House and it is a tragedy that those plans were shelved (see Royal Opera House shelves move north 28 Oct 2010 The Independent). The second city needs its own resident world class ballet company. We had one once and let it go. So sad!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Could the Arts not do something about this horrible Scourge

Last February some of the world's finest classical and contemporary dancers gave up their time for a gala at the Britten Theatre to raise funds for development in Ghana. I was there and it was a great evening for a great cause. I reviewed it in Gala for Ghana 4 Feb 2014.

I think now that there is an even better cause and that is to raise funds for treatment centres, medicines and clinicians to contain, control and eventually conquer a virus that has already killed thousands and is likely to kill very many more.  Possibly even more damaging than the virus itself is the economic damage to the economies of some of the poorest countries in the world since tourists are no longer coming to this regions's beautiful beaches and most other types of business is grinding to standstill. Needless to say it is also affecting the social and cultural life of the region as well. Sierra Leoneans are among the most friendly and courteous folk I know (and I should know for I was married to one for nearly 28 years) but who risks a kiss or handshake nowadays when since skin to skin contact spreads the virus.

So the region needs some help.  It is already getting some from governments and NGOs but Sierra Leone and its neighbours will need massive help in rebuilding their economic, social and cultural institutions when the immediate crisis is over. That's where something like Gala for Ghana to raise money for such rebuilding could help. If anyone in ballet or the other performing arts would care to give their time for a similar gala I would do my best to support it.