A LONG-forgotten ballet about the Gorbals has been given a fresh lease of life in a prestigious city art show.

Glasgow School of Art graduate Katherine Wallace discovered the story of the unusual Sadler's Wells production, which was staged in 1944 and starred famous Scottish dancer Moira Shearer, in the course of her degree show research.

Glasgow Times: Katherine's collages re-imagine the original tale, updating it for a contemporary audience. Picture courtesy of Katherine Wallace

“I was thinking of doing something around modernism, and the Gorbals is one area of the city which has changed a lot over the years, in terms of its reputation and its physical buildings,” explains the 22-year-old, who is from East Kilbride.

“I discovered the story of the ballet, which was called Miracle in the Gorbals, by chance, and it was really interesting. I wanted to change the narrative, and bring the original plot into a contemporary setting. But no pictures survive, and there is no record of the choreography – in fact, I found a video online of one of the original dancers, by then an old lady, teaching students the dances from her memory. It was quite sad, in a way, and very touching.”

Miracle in the Gorbals was choreographed by Robert Helpmann, designed by Edward Burra and had a score by Arthur Bliss.

It was a one-act ballet, performed every season from 1944 to 1950 and it toured Scotland in 1945.

Our sister newspaper The Herald, did review the opening night of the ballet at Sadler's Wells. Its London correspondent noted on October 27, 1944, a little sniffily, that the Gorbals, “the Houndsditch of Glasgow, cannot be called balletic material” but added: “Based on a thick slice of Scots life, this modern work may well become a permanent show in the repertoire.”

Glasgow Times: Katherine's collages re-imagine the original tale, updating it for a contemporary audience.Picture courtesy of Katherine Wallace

The reviewer continued: “The conception may be neither lengthy nor spectacular, but it has a good idea behind it. Indeed, the scenario by Michael Benthall is clever enough to be kept secret until the onlooker watches it for himself.

“Robert Helpmann has done well with the choreography – always a tender spot in modern creations. Edward Burra’s décor is a diversion for any eye, especially for a Scots one. And the music of Arthur Bliss fits the mood exactly. During the next three weeks the Gorbals ballet will be given a dozen times. First-nighters liked it and there is a prospect of Glasgow seeing the novelty shortly.”

However, as Katherine points out, it never came to Glasgow.

“I can’t find out why that was,” she admits. “Were they worried about how it would be received? It is quite a bleak story, because it’s about a young woman who kills herself, and a Christ-like stranger who revives her, only to end up being killed himself by the Gorbals razor-gangs.

“It could also be seen as quite patronising, the saviour coming to help the ‘poor Gorbals people’, the whole romanticisation of poverty.”

Katherine spent time researching the history of the Gorbals and spoke to current and former residents, including Jim McGregor, local historian Peter Mortimer and Friends of the Southern Necropolis founders Colin and Elsie Mackie.

“They were fantastic, I couldn’t have done this without them,” she says. “Listening to their stories was really fascinating – they talked about what it was like growing up in the Gorbals when the area was changing.

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“As Peter said, it went from being a village, to having a bad reputation for slums, then the high rises were built and now it’s much more like a village again. I wanted to reclaim the old story, which focuses on blame, and instead reflect lived experience during the evolution of the area.”

Glasgow Times: The Gorbals, at the junction of Crown Street and Caledonia Road, 1976

Katherine has created a book, comprising collage, sketches and photography, and a film, for her project and both are on display as part of the Communication Design Degree Show at Glasgow School of Art until Saturday (June 11).

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“I feel like I learned a lot about the Gorbals during the course of the project,” she says. “Everyone you speak to has a different take on it – some people loved the new high rises, others hated leaving the tenements and felt isolated. It is such a complicated argument.”

Katherine, who will graduate with a First Class Honours in the summer, is hoping to work on a variety of projects.

“I enjoy social history and the relationship between place and identity, but mainly I like telling other people’s stories,” she says. “That’s what inspires me.”