Posted on September 23, 2010
Richard Llewellyn’s famous novel How Green Was My Valley certainly sets some choreographic challenges. It cannot be easy to translate such detailed events and complex relationships covering a lengthy period of time into a successful ballet. Yet Darius James, artistic director of Independent Ballet Wales, has done a cracking job in his latest work for his bright company.
Llewellyn’s novel follows all aspects of the story of the Morgans, a South Wales coal mining family. But while the ballet includes references to other events, including youngest son Huw’s struggles with his disability and the elder son Ianto’s anger at wage cuts, James centres the action on the triangle involving daughter Angharad, progressive new preacher Mr Gruffydd, and mine owner’s son Iestyn.
The tone for the evening is set immediately. Dancers wearing miners’ boots and lit only by the lamps on their heads, dance against projections of the dark, damp inside of a coal mine, sending out a strong sense of toil and claustrophobia, yet also of closeness and support for each other; themes subsequently reflected in the Morgan’s family life. As proceedings move to the chapel and family house, a sense of innocence and happiness pervades the dance. But as events unfold, anguish and dissent come increasingly to the fore.
Although it could be a little grittier on occasions, James’ choreography is an effortless mix of ballet and contemporary movement, with the story very much told through dance rather than mime. Particularly effective is the way the dancers freeze as the lights dim at the end of many scenes, creating a photographic imprint in the viewer’s mind.
There are many dance highlights, but those that remain in the memory include a strong pas de quatre for four men, and a beautiful duet in Act II performed by two dancers dressed in black and unlit, possibly representing coal. The latter is accompanied by a third dancer moving across the stage in a clever device apparently made out of two desks that, with an accompanying film, conveyed completely the tight, confined nature of the mine.
With just eight dancers there are no places to hide, but none are needed. Given their young ages, the dancers showed considerable maturity of performance. Emily Pimm was delightful as the free-spirited Angharad, destined to be torn between two men and to finish with neither. Richard Read was suitably formal as the preacher, yet so alive when alone with her. Their duets clearly showed their love for each other while being as polite as one might expect. Someone should tell Read to cut back on the unnecessary and over the top stylised ballet walking though. Elsewhere, Mandev Sokhi was very much the angry face of youth, and Oliver Eastwood was a caring father, struggling to keep his family together.
With the physical set kept to a minimum, the action is framed by Matt Wright and Janire Najera’s stunning films, projected onto the cyclorama and two sheets that hang above the action, and capture both the suffocating nature of the mine and the expansive Welsh hillsides. The use of time-lapse photography provides a clever means of indicating time passing.
The late Victorian era is brought to life further by Thomas Hewitt Jones’ moody score, part recorded, part played live by Hewitt Jones himself on cello. The Welsh nature of the story is accented by his seamless incorporation of the sounds of the Newport Male Voice Choir. Their singing brought warmth and a homeliness to the proceedings.
The whole evening was a delight. On arrival it was a little disconcerting to see the company had felt it necessary to print an addendum to the programme detailing the characters, their relationships, and the plot in detail. But I need not have worried. Although things got slightly hazy in Act II, not having read the novel or seen any of the film or television adaptations was never a problem. Not even a power cut during Act I threw the company off course. How Green Was My Valley is innovation and tradition combined, and a truly Welsh ballet.
How Green Was My Valley. Photograph by Janire Najeera