Darts, ruins, and a cimbalom

Very occasionally being a music librarian can take you to the most unexpected places. I’ve recently returned from a trip to Basel prompted by a production of a new ballet, Robin Hood, choreographed by British choreographer, Richard Wherlock, the Director and Chief Choreographer of Ballett Basel. So, what was the connection with my usual life in Cambridge University Library’s Music Department? Music for the ballet was primarily by British composers, and included two, whose archives we hold here – William Alwyn and Sir Arthur Bliss. London in the 1960s, John Barry and Arthur Bliss, dartboards and the Kray Twins…I had to find out what it was about.

To start with, it all sounded a little bonkers. There was a rich, or should I say quirky?, collection of music including Vera Lynn and Petula Clark, a snippet from the Enigma Variations, Edward German, a touch of the Tudors including Farnaby, Tomkins, and Byrd, some big names from twentieth century English music such as Bliss and Holst, and a very large dash of John Barry interspersed with a little Henry Mancini (the “Pie-in-the-face-polka” from The Great Race was enormous fun).

If the variety of music doesn’t sound odd enough, the setting was pretty peculiar too. The classic Robin Hood legend was updated to 1960’s almost-swinging London. The city may still be suffering from wartime bomb-damage, but pop music and fashion are about to turn London into a central cultural hub. While Robin’s Merry Men are a group of hip rockers – Will Scarlett appeared to be closely related to the singer, Joe Brown, while Little John looked like a twin of Rick Wakeman – more sinister forces are at work as the Kray Twins take over the roles of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

It may all sound pretty strange, but there was much to admire in this unusual ballet. The sets were fabulous, the ruined buildings added height and depth to the set, and clever use of video turned the Golden Arrow contest into a dart’s match with the world’s largest dart-board. There was some stunning dancing; and for a ballet that was generally quite light-hearted, there were some serious themes including rape, violence and the criminal underworld, which were dealt with sensitively, while not diminishing the effects on the victims.

Back to the music… It probably helped if you were into film music, as the John Barry themes, most of which were taken from the James Bond canon were used as a leitmotif for Robin Hood himself, while scenes that you might remember from the films were often useful in underlying what was happening on stage. Certainly themes such as the music from The Ipcress File were clear pointers to developments. The use of the cimbalom at the culmination of the torture scenes not only added a Cold War frisson to the onstage action, any devotee of ’60’s Espionage films would know that Harry Palmer might be tortured and in prison, but he would live to fight another day, and so, you would hope, would Maid Marian and her father.

Along with the music of John Barry, excerpts from Arthur Bliss’ Miracle of the Gorbals was a constant throughout the ballet. Of the art music, this worked the best. I think there were a number of reasons for this. Gorbals itself was originally written for the Sadler’s Wells Ballet company, and was premiered in 1944. The setting of the original ballet in the slums of Glasgow fitted in very well with the London slums of Wherlock’s re-imagined Robin Hood. Possibly too the writing and first performance of the work in war-damaged London carried through into the music; but most of all this was music for dancing. The original choreography of that first ballet by Robert Helpmann was largely lost, until it was pieced together from the muscle memories and minds of former dancers and resurrected by Gillian Lynne for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. Richard Wherlock showed that however different the choreography may be to the original, Bliss’s music was always going to be music that demanded dancers to reach its full potential.

I must admit that I did go to this ballet with some preconceptions, not altogether positive, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It may have sounded bonkers, it may even have looked slightly batty, but there was a lot more substance to the production than I had expected. Enjoyable and thought provoking, and another programme for the Archives.


Previously published on MusiCB3, the blog of Cambridge University Library’s Music Department.