On this 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the Birmingham Royal Ballet follows in the English National Ballet’s footsteps in presenting a mixed programme on the theme of war, but, unlike ENB, BRB have chosen not focus overtly on war itself.
The bill opens with Kenneth MacMillan’s La Fin du Jour. While his better-known Gloria conveys the Great War, La Fin du Jour is concerned with the threshold of the Second World War. It depicts the glamour and elegance of 1930s affluent youths, with nods to beach parties and the burgeoning aviation industry. The costumes are a perfect fit: beachwear, sportswear and cocktail attire. But Macmillan gives us a twisted view of a seemingly happy scenario, the costumes in shades of shocking pink and orange, with a backdrop that looks as if there are giant faces peering in.
The middle act is the toughest – the two leading females barely touch the floor in a series of fiendish lifts by the male corps. On opening night, there was little unity in the two central couples, and Céline Gittens, though with such gorgeous lines, was almost dropped. Most crucial of all, they made the lifts look hard, in contrast to the carefree abandon of the story.
But, happily, the final act is marvellous. The men are fantastic in the opening push-ups in the air. They are led by Tyrone Singleton, with big, solid jumps and radiating joy at every turn, and Brandon Lawrence, who more than held his own (despite being a first artist) and managed the never-ending jumps with ease.
The music certainly suggests something is off-kilter: Ravel’s composition is laced with staccato piano notes and slow, drawn-out strings. It reminds me of Frederick Ashton’s La Valse, which uses a different Ravel score but similarly hints at the dawn of conflict. The audience is lured into this superficial fun and frolics until the end, when Macmillan shows us in one simple gesture that life as these people know it is about to change forever.
The evening ends with a revival of David Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest. Split into two distinct sections, the first also concerns carefree lives. Clad in tartan, the choreography takes inspiration from ceilidh and highland dancing, with lifts in circles and skips en pointe. Nao Sakuma and Jamie Bond are wonderful in their airy jumps and clean beats, evoking a similar quality to La Sylphide. Though Tzu-Chao Chou and Kit Holder more than matched Bond sprightliness.
Bintley avoids the literal in the darker second half. Instead, we see a different cast in a different time, accompanied by Britten’s Scottish Ballad. The stunning Turner-esque backdrop of pretty pastel colours is lit with crimson. Unfortunately, once reverted to more classical vocabulary, Flowers of the Forest becomes much less distinctive.
If the two works strike an abstract note of conflict, the new Miracle in the Gorbals contains the clearest narrative. The production, set during wartime in the notorious Glaswegian slum, was staged by Robert Helpmann during the 1940s. Now Dame Gillian Lynne has recreated it, though admits no-one involved in the original (herself included) remembers a step. But it’s the story – with its themes of hatred, doomed lives and redemption – that stands the test of time.
Lynne is a worthy successor to Helpmann – both had come from classical backgrounds and went on to achieve bigger success in wider entertainment. Lynne, who choreographed Cats and Phantom of the Opera, really shows her musical theatre experience in this staging.
In turn, the choreography isn’t very classical nor is it subtle. Iain Mackay’s Minister, angered by the loss of authority, stamp and punch aggressively; Elisha Willis’ Prostitute struts and teases; Delia Matthews’ Suicide is full of yearning and stunted movements.
But theatricality is no bad thing, giving the company a different vocabulary to work with. The ensemble pieces are thrilling – Lynne knows how to set the scene and tell the story through these group pieces. The climax in which the angry mob descends on The Stranger (quite how César Morales manages the soaring jumps in a big cardigan and sandals is unclear) is particularly haunting and drew gasps from the audience. And, without showing anything explicit, we see how the manipulation of the masses and the spread of hatred can lead to something altogether darker.