This was Kenneth MacMillan’s first commission for Covent Garden, which at the time maintained a small Opera Ballet of twelve dancers separate from the main ballet company. The Venusberg ballet comes in act one of Tannhäuser and represents the sensual world of Venus and her realm, with which the opera’s protagonist is helplessly enchanted. It was not part of Wagner’s 1845 original; he introduced the scene at the behest of the Paris Opera in 1861, where the insertion of a ballet in the score was a house tradition.
The 1955 Covent Garden production was not a success. The Observer called it “a ludicrous misalliance between Ralph Koltai’s expressionistic sets and a singularly ill-executed production by Sumner Austin.” Only MacMillan’s choreography won praise. For The Times the bacchanale in the Venusberg was “better than is usually contrived”. For Dance and Dancers, “MacMillan almost alone did nothing to detract from his growing reputation”. While the erotic by-play of the choreography had “more kinship with Petit than Fokine”, a more conventional romantic bacchanale “would have been out of place in Ralph Koltai’s starkly chic settings”.
However, the popular press was now taking notice of MacMillan. “Has the Lord Chamberlain seen it?” asked The Daily Mail. “The astonishing Bacchanal dance sequence in the new production of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden is the talk of the town. It shows scantily dressed bacchantes, sirens, naiads and nymphs in poses that, in my opinion, would be banned from the Folies Bergère. “It’s not all that erotic. MacMillan said. “In fact, I thought it rather tame.…” I don’t know what Mr. MacMillan considers suggestive. But the fact remains that the Covent Garden administrators will not let the scene be photographed – at any price.”