TOMORROW marks the start of Scottish Ballet’s 50th anniversary year, so I thought I’d take a look at the company’s antecedents, and they are not to be sniffed at. Here is the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, talking to a newspaper about the proposal for a “new Scottish ballet” in the 1930s.

“She told me that she had been studying it carefully and had come to the conclusion that Highland and ballet dancing had the same base. She even demonstrated ballet movements to me and showed the corresponding movement in the Highland fling. With a heritage like that, she said, the Scots ought to be good ballet dancers.”

The 1930s unidentified reporter added: “It will be interesting to see whether the new Scottish ballet can come up to her opinion.”

The “new Scottish ballet” was formed in 1937 by the Scottish composer, Erik Chisholm. It was succeeded by the Celtic Ballet, founded jointly with the dancer/choreographer/artist Margaret Morris. Chisholm’s ballet The Forsaken Mermaid, composed for the former company, was the first production of its successor, with choreography by Morris, and sets and costumes by Andrew Taylor-Elder, principal of the Glasgow School of Art. The ballet was completed in 1936 for two pianos, the pianists being Chisholm himself and Jack Whyte Henderson. Orchestral selections from it were performed by the Scottish Orchestra in 1937, with Chisholm conducting; but in 1940 it was impossible to recruit and pay for an orchestra, so they used the two-piano version published by William MacLellan.

Musically, The Forsaken Mermaid is fairly simple compared with some of Chisholm’s earlier major works. He was composing for a ballet audience, and for dancers not all of whom were fully professional, and who might have had difficulty following a complex score. The contrasts of motion inherent in a tale which takes place partly on or under water, and partly on land, are asking for ballet treatment. Originally Chisholm had all the action on land, but Margaret Morris was not one to miss the opportunity of underwater scenes in a ballet. Chisholm also wanted a sad ending, but bowed to pressure by producing one which was bitter-sweet.

A mermaid is caught in fishermen’s nets, and Alan falls in love with her, spurning his former love. But he grows tired of his mermaid and she returns to the sea in despair. There the people of the sea take their revenge in a terrible storm, drowning two fishermen and Alan, held responsible for their deaths, throws himself into the sea to join the Mermaid who pleads for his life to be restored to him under the waves.

The score is largely – and very appealingly – based on airs from Patrick MacDonald’s 1784 A Collection Of Highland Vocal Airs, so you might guess that Chisholm’s music was of the Celtic mist school. Not at all. It was appreciated as modernist: as one critic wrote: “The score by its clear-cut and metallic nature seemed admirably fitted to the treatment of its Celtic theme. Indeed, the contemporary composer is better fitted than his immediate predecessors to deal with the Celtic world not as a sad twilight place but as a bright hard heroic place, owing some kinship, say, to the archaic Greek.”

Original costumes for The Forsaken Mermaid are kept in the Fergusson Gallery in Perth, and show a sensitivity to colour and material which, coupled with the now-faded applied paint, is expressive in its own right. There is a video of the Mermaid’s Dance, using Morris’s original choreography and danced in the original costume, showing just how effective was the combination of music, dance and design.

The National:

Andrew Taylor-Elder's costume design for a Seaweed Maiden

Morris was the first exponent of the Isadora Duncan method of dancing, which broke many social taboos, involving near-nudity, dancing barefoot and freedom of costume and movement that were in direct opposition to the classical ballet ideals of the time. Duncan was inspired by Greek art, and Morris also integrated visual art into her choreography in co-operation with her artist husband, JD Fergusson.

Chisholm’s next ballet, The Earth Shapers, was produced and choreographed by Morris and was premiered in the Lyric Theatre, Glasgow, in November, 1941. William Crosbie designed the sets and costumes. I wrote about The Earth Shapers in an article for The National (October 28, 2016) pointing out that a neutral, if not pacifist agenda, could be detected in it; but I didn’t show you any of Crosbie’s designs, two of which were entitled “illness”. He was himself ill at the time. So was the world, and this ballet was suggesting how it might be healed.

Crosbie was no Celtic Revivalist. He had studied with Fernand Léger in Paris, and could command many different styles and techniques.

He also knew all about Pavlova for she used to rehearse in Crosbie’s studio when it was briefly a hotel dining room, cleared daily for her use.The studio was originally designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh for DY Cameron, and in it many a toast to Pavlova was proposed and drunk.

I know this because I knew Bill well. He was a close family friend and we were often in the studio – I even have a photo of myself with him on his yacht Friga. That was not far off 70 years ago.

THE work of Taylor-Elder and Crosbie, as well as Morris herself, brought a new modernist approach to Celtic subject matter. The same modernist approach was brought to Ian Whyte’s ballet Donald Of The Burthens, produced at Covent Garden in 1951. The scenario comes from Domhnull nan Cual, a Gaelic folk tale collected by the Reverend James MacDougall, published in 1910, and followed closely by Léonide Massine. The ballet includes a waulking song and mouth music, and concludes splendidly with orchestra and bagpipes playing The Reel Of Tulloch. The choreography was directed by Massine who developed a new combination of Highland dancing and ballet, with traditional steps supervised by John Armstrong and Elma Taylor. Equally significant, from the visual point of view, were the outstanding sets and costumes by Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. Alexander Grant was Donald, and Beryl Grey took the demanding role of Death.

The National:

Robert MacBryde's set design for Donald Of The Burthens

The Illustrated London News feature on the ballet, of December 1951, noted: “The role of Death involved terrific leaps, turns and twists in quick succession. Dressed daringly for the time, from head to foot in flame coloured body tights, Beryl Grey flashed across the stage like a beam of angry light receiving a tremendous and deserved ovation. Streamlined in scarlet tights she dances with angular, disjointed movements such as might be expected of a skeleton – austere and brittle. Miss Grey executes this long and strenuous role with amazing speed and vitality.”

Sets and costumes made use of motifs derived from “a primitive and megalithic Scotland”. It seems clear that the Riasg Buidhe on Colonsay was the direct inspiration for “the standing stones of an ancient Scotland” shown in The Illustrated London News feature.

The lower part of the right-hand stone is almost identical with the cross, and the implied sexuality of the imagery no less clear. If they had not seen the cross in situ, Colquhoun and MacBryde could have seen an illustration of it in John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson’s study of early Christian monuments. Given the subject matter of the ballet, it seems highly likely that they would have researched such sources, as they had been advised by Jankel Adler. MacBryde wrote in 1946: “Pictish art has interested me as later Celtic for 12 years and I have found much in later Scots painting of 17th and 18th century. The dramatic quality of this work is particularly Scots and follows naturally native feeling as in Dunbar, Henryson and the Ballad Makers ... Like Colquhoun, I am a young student with a passion for my own Scots and a desire to perpetuate our plant in the European bouquet.”

Although MacBryde uses the word “Scots” in the above, he was certainly very conscious of his Gaelic background, whether dancing a Highland reel, or singing Gaelic songs he learnt from his mother. Colquhoun and MacBryde are well-established clan names and “the two Roberts” could be aggressively Scottish, wearing kilts and, in their own way, living a parallel bohemian life to that of the Scottish composer and critic Cecil Gray.

One of those best qualified to review Donald Of The Burthens was Margaret Morris. Her script for the BBC Scottish Home Service programme Arts Review shows her deep appreciation of what might have seemed to her an unfair rival, with all the facilities of a vast organisation which she had never enjoyed.

“My first impression – as I came into the darkened circle at the dress rehearsal; was of being enveloped in lovely sound and colour, and of a vivid scarlet – the figure of Death insistent and dominating – running through the pinks and greys and blues. Then I was conscious of relief that it was all on a level of Fantasy – and that there were no real tartans, and no attempt to suggest more realistically the serious Scottish characteristics. The kilt, in saffron and other colours, was made good use of, but worn over tights... Massine... told me he hoped to create something with the Scottish dance, as he had done with the Spanish, this I feel he has. (With the expert advice of Mr Armstrong and Miss Alma Taylor) Massine has combined the Highland steps with the ballet technique, creating a new dance idiom.”

I VISITED Dame Beryl Grey in 2016. She was a living link with the ballet, nearly 90 and an absolute delight. She told me: “I enjoyed the ballet very much... but I was the only one on pointe. I remember that rehearsals were held up because the dancers had to learn Scottish folk dancing and that is all on the balls of the feet, whereas ballet you have to push your heels down; so it didn’t come naturally or easily – lots of us got blisters – but we respected it … we had to use new different muscles … we enjoyed the challenge.”

The final scene was “wonderful – it is wonderful where the music is a perfect leader … the music, you see, told the story. The Scottish folk dancing came at the end of the ballet, with a man playing the bagpipes on the stage. That was actually very inspiring for the dancers. We all enjoyed it very much.”

Donald Of The Burthens has never been revived, and the same applies to The Forsaken Mermaid and other Celtic ballets. But who knows?

Next week JD Fergusson and more on Margaret Morris. They were quite a pair.