Danses Concertantes was MacMillan’s first major work: his first for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet; his first Stravinsky ballet (seven others would follow); and his first to be designed by Nicholas Georgiadis, still a student at the Slade School. Arnold Haskell hailed the emergence of “a genuine choreographer of a rare kind”. Encouraged by the response of audiences and critics, MacMillan decided to stop dancing and to commit himself wholeheartedly to choreography.
Although Stravinsky's score is for concert performance by a chamber orchestra, his chosen title also made clear his ambition for a dance staging and Balanchine had already choreographed his version in 1944. For Balanchine the score suggested the spirit of the commedia dell’arte; MacMillan was similarly drawn to the music’s “humorous and witty” quality and its suggestions of “a kaleidoscope of ever changing patterns”.
Danses Concertantes is a plotless ballet where sharpness is all. The choreography consists of an intricate suite of dances. There is a bustling general dance full of entrances and exits for the company, a pas de trois, a rumbustious solo for a male dancer, an adagio for the ballerina and five cavaliers, and a pas de deux. MacMillan responded to Stravinsky’s acerbic chamber score with sharp spiky choreography; pointing fingers, jarringly broken line, angled ports de bras and sudden swift turns in direction. Danses Concertantes was fast, fleet and contemporary with hints of jive, revue, cinema and the circus. Georgiadis’s hectic colours (lime, orange, electric blue) strongly recalled the Festival of Britain. His nervy lines of decoration, his fantastical mix of jazz and carnival references (echoing the score) similarly spoke of a generation breaking free of 1950s restraint.
Next morning, The Times praised Macmillan for choreography which “could hardly be bettered” in its realisation of the music and for invention that was “happy, copious and unforced. The orchestra laboured with the broken-backed rhythms but the dancers had them pat”.
Clement Crisp was also in the first night audience. “I still recall how the eye was teased by the sparks of energy and wild originality given off by the movement, how the Georgiadis designs glowed and flashed, how bright-footed the young cast seemed. Why had no-one ever used fingers like this before? Or turned staid ideas on their heads, and made partnering witty? Danses was a declaration of talent, of the arrival of the new heir.”