Neil Norman speaks to Dame Gillian Lynne about reconstructing Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals.
On 13 June 1944, the first of Hitler's V-1 flying bombs, or 'doodlebugs', fell on London. The summer Olympics scheduled for the city were cancelled due to the war and the population was still subject to rationing. It was a tough time to present a tough ballet. And they don't come much tougher than Miracle in the Gorbals.
Robert Helpmann's groundbreaking dance drama, which received its premiere at the Prince's Theatre in London on 26 October, 1944, is the mother of all realist ballets. Based on a scenario by Helpmann's long-term partner Michael Benthall, it was a pioneering work in the uncharted field of 'dirty' ballet, in which real people were represented in a real environment through both design and movement. A ballet blanc it was not.
Inspired by his time on a gunsite in Glasgow, Benthall wrote a detailed scenario about a wandering outsider who comes to town and resurrects a girl who has committed suicide. The lowlifes in the Gorbals then turn on The Stranger and murder him in a fit of twisted and vengeful paranoia.
Helpmann instantly recognised it as a Christ allegory and took steps to make it into a one-act work for Sadler's Wells Ballet. He commissioned composer Arthur Bliss to write the score from Benthall's scenario and the artist Edward Burra to design the sets and costumes. Then, he set to work to bring the thing alive through physical action, movement and steps.
The result proved so successful that Sadler's Wells Ballet performed it every season until 1950, at home and abroad, reviving it once again in 1958. Since then, it has disappeared from view until David Bintley realised it would be a great work to return to the light of day. There was just one problem: while Benthall's scenario and Bliss's score were readily accessible, Helpmann's choreography was lost beyond recovery. Step forward Dame Gillian Lynne.
She was the perfect choice. One of the leading choreographers of her generation, Dame Gillian was also one of the last surviving female members of the original cast, the others being Pauline Clayden and Julia Farron, now 91 and 92 respectively. Bintley invited her to re-create a ballet, as close as possible to Helpmann's astonishing work, for a new generation.
The challenge of making a new ballet from the remains of the old one is immense. But Gillian is more than equal to it. 'The problem is that none of us can remember a step, apart from Pauline Clayden who knew her solo in its entirety. So I will be making a new ballet. The score is amazing and it is brilliant for the ballet. It is so accurate to the emotions of the moment.'
Gillian was 18 when she joined Sadler's Wells Ballet under the directorship of Ninette de Valois. As part of ENSA, the small company spent six months of the year touring the UK, entertaining the troops in garrisons and towns, and the rest of the time in London. It is almost impossible to imagine the conditions under which they performed night after night and hard to underestimate the sheer courage of everyone involved.
'We were a much smaller company and the war made us very close,' says Gillian. 'We were always touring, living rough and it was much tougher. And we danced every night of the week – there was no question of having an alternative cast.'
Given the fact that 70 years have passed since the opening night, I ask her how much she recalls of the time, the evening and the response in the Prince's Theatre. 'It was a hideous theatre as it had a very steep rake,' she says ruefully. 'There was not much food, never any meat and we were thrilled to be allotted £10 each to get our own clothes. I can remember the first-night reaction being ecstatic.'
The question is, how well will it stand up to scrutiny seven decades after its debut? Gillian is in no doubt. 'I think it is very, very pertinent. Because God knows we need something like this now – it is a terrible time. The whole of the end of the Mediterranean is at war. We are still killing people now just like then, aren't we? We have no real honesty or respect any more. And absolutely no morality. I am proud and frightened and excited about it. I am so grateful that David has asked an 88-year-old to do it. He is excited about it too. I was hoping to persuade David to dance the role of The Stranger, Helpmann's role. No chance!'
Above all, it will restore the name of Robert Helpmann to its rightful place in the pantheon of mouldbreaking choreographers. 'It is my duty to bring it to the stage as closely as possible. I am comforted by the fact that if Bobby was alive today, he would be encouraging my endeavours.'
Best of all, today's audiences are unlikely to be distracted by the drone of incoming doodlebugs.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Entrechat, the magazine of Birmingham Royal Ballet Friends.