A Charming and Moving Ballet
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 05/01/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It is with great embarrassment that I admit I'd never heard of the subject of this narrative ballet, 'A Simple Man': the English painter L. S. Lowry. Laurence Stephen Lowry (1887-1976) is claimed by some to be the best-known English painter of the 20th century. In his paintings he depicted the industrial landscapes of the Midlands, with backgrounds of chimneys and industrial buildings before which crowds of drably dressed figures move in a state of isolation. Color is subdued and the naive elements lead one to believe that Lowry was himself naive, but closer inspection shows the masterful composition and tonal combinations he used. He was a native of Salford, a suburb of Manchester, and this ballet was commissioned in 1987 by that city to commemorate the centenary of his birth. This DVD is of that 1987 performance. It brought together the talents of choreographer Gillian Lynne, who choreographed 'Cats' and 'Phantom of the Opera,' and composer Carl Davis, a New Yorker long resident in England, who is best known for his work in TV and films and as the co-composer of Paul McCartney's 'Requiem.'
Best of all this performance by the Northern Ballet Theatre brings back two long-retired stars of the Royal Ballet as the main soloists: Moira Shearer, best known for her luminous performance in the movie 'The Red Shoes,' and Christopher Gable, possibly the best-known male dancer at the Royal Ballet until his retirement. He was 47 when this ballet was filmed and he has since died of cancer. The music is performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under the composer.
The ballet is introduced by Albert Finney, himself a native of Salford. He gives us the basic facts of Lowry's life -- his devotion to his mother, with whom he lived until her death when he was 51, and his living alone, grief-stricken, for the rest of his life, working his day job as a rent-collector and painting at night in a small room in his home. The ballet relives this story against a background similar to Lowry's paintings. The corps de ballet are clothed as the people in his paintings.
This all sounds very grim, but indeed Lynne's choreography is quirky, angular and often comic. Shearer and Gable are simply stupendous in their roles. Shearer, still slim and with that crown of glorious red hair, acts and dances the Mother's fragility and imposing will with artistry. Gable is enormously effective in his role as Lowry; he is a consummate actor. Lynne's choreography and Gable's dancing of Lowry's grief are stunningly done. Davis's music, unfailing tonal and tuneful, is suitably lyrical, tender, dramatic or comic as the story dictates. Videography is crisp and unobtrusive.
I will admit that I'm not an aficionado of dance, and certainly not qualified as a dance critic, but I did love this ballet and its presentation. The opportunity to see Moira Shearer dance again -- she had retired from dancing to become an actress at age 27 -- was a delight.