Kenneth MacMillan: His creative spirit remains, 25 years after his death

To mark the 25th anniversary of MacMillan’s death – in October 1992 – six dance companies in the United Kingdom have been staging his works – the Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Northern Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Yorke Dance Project.

Next year, the Royal Ballet will continue its tribute to MacMillan with performances of Manon and Elite Syncopations and the English National Ballet will compete its national season of Song of the Earth in mid January,

The Australian Ballet last performed a MacMillan ballet – Manon – in 2014 and in the same year the Queensland Ballet staged MacMillan’s Romeo & Juliet, a much loved ballet that the Birmingham Royal Ballet will bring back in June 2018.

The following (edited) article was first published in the Australian Ballet’s theatre program for the Manon season.

Labelled by many, including himself, as an outsider, Kenneth MacMillan was just as much a provocateur as he was erudite, witty and, in the words of his wife, Deborah, “a bundle of paradoxes,

“He always appeared to be frightened of everything”, she once said, “but when push came to shove, at the centre of him was this odd piece of granite”.

MacMillan must have had a core of granite.

He suffered from extreme anxiety all his life yet he was able to create more 40 ballets, withstand an onslaught of relentlessly negative critics, survive the political machinations of Covent Garden, where he was artistic director of the Royal Ballet for seven years, and emerge, relatively unscathed, as one of the 20th century’s most significant choreographers.

His fears, sense of isolation, and alienation were triggered by his early years as the son of an abusive father and a fragile mother who sent him away to school at an early age.

At the age of 12 he returned home from boarding school one day to be shown his mother’s corpse.

His father instructed the boy to kiss his mother’s cold lips. But, he added, you mustn’t cry. From that moment, MacMillan wrote, “a darkness settled on me like a cloak”.

Or perhaps like a shell.

The critic, Alexander Bland, wrote that MacMillan often resembled “an outsize mollusc driven by fate to live a few places from its shell”.

But MacMillan wasn’t always in hiding.

His muse, the ballerina, Lynn Seymour, remembers him as a comic, a gossip, with a schoolboy’s sense of humour, who enjoyed the camaraderie that dancers develop on tour or during a long season when they aren’t doing much but standing and smiling upstage in the shadows.

He found a home from home when he joined the Sadlers Wells Ballet School, where, for the first time “I was with people whom I could talk to about the things I really felt”.

He found the same kindred spirits at the Sadlers Wells company but severe stage fright cut short his dancing career and he turned to choreography.

Peter Wright, a colleague of MacMillan’s at Sadlers Wells, thought “Kenneth’s problems lay deeper than just stage fright; he seemed to have a tortured soul”.

He began his lifelong visits to psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whose insights ultimately helped him understand both his own neuroses and those of others, allowing him to create the troubled characters who populated his ballets.

There were plenty of them in MacMillan’s choreographic armoury as he told of betrayal, guilt, death and unbearable grief – although he also created ballets that were light-hearted, witty, sophisticated or simply comic.

As Lynn Seymour said, he dealt with subjects and issues that ballet had previously not addressed.

Manon, for example, is a story of lust, theft, cheating, murder and finally an agonising death expressed in a passionate, acrobatic pas de deux that is the antithesis of the romantic demise of the traditional, otherworldly ballet heroines such as Giselle and Odette.

For MacMillan, an elegant stage death in ballet’s fifth position, with feet crossed at the ankles and pointed at the toes, was a ludicrous concept.

His choreography began with Somnambulism in 1953 but reached a new level of intensity two years later with House of Birds, based on a grotesque tale by the Brothers Grimm of a Bird
Woman who transforms humans into birds.

MacMillan next turned to the story of Anne Frank, creating The Burrow, set in an attic room where young love blossoms despite the entrapment of all those captured there.

Photos of MacMillan in those years show him in polo neck sweaters and almost always with a cigarette in his hand or dangling from his lips.

He had by now joined the ranks of the angry young men of the late 1950s, many of them authors or playwrights such as John Osborne, who described ballet as ‘effete’ and whose Jimmy Porter, the central character in his play, Look Back in Anger, spoke for the working class: “You see I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless”.

In the new Britain of the 1950s, writers ridiculed the Establishment, while films such as Room at the Top brought the working class under the spotlight.

Successful playwrights of the time, such as Terence Rattigan, J B Priestly and Noel Coward, were banished from London stages, swept away by the gritty dramas of Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Edward Bond.

As Lynn Seymour wrote of these times, “sex and psychology were in the air”, as was cinema’s nouvelle vague.

“Kenneth”, she said, “ushered this zeitgeist into the world of British ballet”.

MacMillan had admired Osborne’s work since 1956, when he first saw Look Back in Anger.

Years later he wrote to the playwright: “Your play made me see that everything in my world was merely window-dressing.”

Osborne and MacMillan later worked together on Osborne’s satire The World of Paul Slickey. The musical premiered in 1959 with MacMillan as choreographer.

At this time, MacMillan was devouring foreign language films and books, finding inspiration for his next work, The Invitation, from Colette’s Le Blé en Herb and The House of the Angel by Beatriz Guido.

Set in the Edwardian era and first staged in 1960, the ballet depicted the rape of a young woman in an even more confronting scene than the moment in Manon when the Gaoler in Louisiana forces himself on the heroine.

MacMillan told the critic, Clement Crisp, that much of his career had been “a fight against the Establishment and its view of ballet. I feel that I had a lot of trouble with the Opera House establishment because of an almost pre-war view there of what ballet was about”.

The board of the Royal Opera House had rejected his ballet based on Mahler’s Song of the Earth, because a powerful group of directors decided that Mahler’s score was sacrosanct.

Instead, Song of the Earth was first staged in 1965 for the Stuttgart Ballet, one year before MacMillan found a new home in Berlin as ballet director at the Deutsche Oper.

There he choreographed the one act ballet, Anastasia, based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed to be a daughter of the last Russian czar.

When MacMillan was reinstated as the Royal Ballet’s artistic director in 1970 Anastasia was extended to a three-act ballet and, along with his Romeo & Juliet (1965), Manon (1974), and Mayerling (1978), became known as one of MacMillan’s neo-traditional, full evening ballets much loved by audiences for their complex and engaging narratives, luscious designs and their passionate pas de deux.

Two of these works, Romeo & Juliet and Manon become internationally acclaimed ballet blockbusters of the 20th century.

Manon arrived relatively late to Australia when, in 1994, it was the fourth MacMillan work to enter the Australian Ballet’s repertoire, following Concerto, Las Hermanas and Song of the Earth.

By then, MacMillan’s links with Australia included not only his marriage to the Queensland-born artist, Deborah Williams but also his collaborations with the artists and designers Sidney Nolan, Kenneth Rowell, Ian Spurling and Barry Kay.

MacMillan made two visits to Australia in the late 1980s, both fraught.

The first was in 1987 when the Australian Ballet staged Song of the Earth.

At the time, MacMillan must have been preoccupied with the symptoms that predicted his later diagnosis of throat cancer.

He gave an interview to The Age’s Neil Jillett, telling the critic that Song of the Earth was “a very adult ballet in all its emotions, not just love and death, but all the subtleties in between. I know death well. I was brought up during the war. I saw a lot of people killed…One of the emotions you feel about death very often is anger, anger that you’re left alone, for instance.

“Yes, this ballet is an elegy – for my childhood, because I was brought up in the war and I saw a lot of awful things. I carry that with me even now”.

When the Royal Ballet took Manon to Australia the following year, MacMillan came with the company.

On tour in Australia he suffered a heart attack yet determinedly returned to his old home, the Royal Ballet, to create his two last works, The Prince of the Pagodas and The Judas Tree.

MacMillan died in a corridor during a performance of Mayerling at the Royal Opera House in 1992.

As his wife cradled his body, the House’s general director, Jeremy Isaacs, broke the news to the dancers and then, on stage, to the audience.

His funeral was private but his creative spirit remains in full public view, on every stage where his works are performed.

Copyright:Valerie Lawson

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Precious Adams,Elite Syncopations, English National Ballet, photo © Bill Cooper

Tyrone Singleton and Jenna Roberts, Concerto, Birmingham Royal Ballet, photo © Andy Ross

Kenneth MacMillan, photo © Anthony Crickmay

Frances Hayward and Edward Watson, Manon, Royal Ballet, photo © Alice Pennefather

Lorenzo Trossello, Ayami Miyata and Mlindi Kulashe, Gloria, Northern Ballet, photo © Guy Farrow

Le Baiser de la fée, Scottish Ballet, photo © Andy Ross

Thiago Soares and Lauren Cutherbertson, The Judas Tree, Royal Ballet