The Burrow

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To its early audiences for whom World War II was a recent memory, Kenneth MacMillan’s psychological drama The Burrow strongly recalled the harrowing Diaries of Ann Frank. In his depiction of human suffering, MacMillan was venturing into territory then unusual on the ballet stage. The Burrow foreshadowed such later works as Valley of Shadows, Playground and Different Drummer. Arnold Haskell’s programme note for the premiere read:

“There are many today who live in hiding, sealed off in some small room. Such a room is a small world in which life burns more intensely; the flickering of a light bulb may bring despair. The ballet introduces us to such a world; there is the woman who is close to breaking point; the man who is an outcast – even the victims of intolerance are intolerant – the over-cheerful man, whose humour is a bludgeon; the child unconscious of fear but quick to seize the mood; and the lover who can never be alone. A knock on the door and their world is shattered.”

There are some twenty dancers on stage throughout. Nicholas Georgiadis’s claustrophobic set, in browns and buffs, was an attic room with a narrow closed door, which became the focal point as the ballet neared its climax. For his score, MacMillan looked again to Frank Martin whose Petite Symphonie Concertante he had used in Laiderette.

For some reviewers, the concentration of dancers in a confined space was startling and dramatic; others commented that it made for fragmentary choreography and loss of impact. Clive Barnes, writing in Dance and Dancers, praised the performances of Lynn Seymour and Donald Mac Leary as touching, hesitant young lovers (“Seymour showed a charming quality all her own and should prove a distinct acquisition for the Royal Ballet”). Barnes singled out Donald Britton’s Joker as “one of the finest male character performances yet seen in British ballet.” For an audience with recent memories of war and whose younger members had known nothing but the Cold War, The Burrow was powerfully resonant. “Fear is something familiar to MacMillan’s generation”, Barnes continued, “something we instinctively recognise.”

The Times review (unsigned) commented: “Although there is no overt message, it somehow recalls The Green Table, perhaps because both are tracts on war, but though it generates considerable tension through the imaginatively conceived choreography – restricted movements, sudden tutti stampedes, contorted enchainements – it has not in sum the emotional power of that remarkable sermon in dance. Yet it is sufficiently dramatic in its three tableaux to make one glad when it ends.” The Guardian’s review (also unsigned) suggested that “the work does not grow dramatically – when the knock on the door comes, one feel that it might just as well have come much earlier or much later – but its flashes of individual dance are impressive ; and altogether it has speed, tension and an atmosphere of fear”

At the Copenhagen Festival in June 1961, the Royal Danish Ballet danced The Burrow along with Danses Concertantes and Solitaire in a MacMillan programme. “The Danes have skilfully mastered the alien style”, The Guardian noted approvingly, “and it was good to find that this versatile young choreographer is being hailed in Copenhagen as an outstanding creative talent.”

In 1992, Kenneth MacMillan recreated The Burrow for Birmingham Royal Ballet, this time with new designs by Nicholas Georgiadis suggestive of one of today’s cardboard cities of refugees. In important respects the recreation was a new work; the surviving Benesh score was fragmentary and the archive film poorly shot. Judith Mackrell, writing for The Independent, commented:

“Perhaps the most startling effect, which MacMillan hasn't tinkered with, is the way that all 21 dancers remain on stage throughout - fighting for space in Nicholas Georgiadis's dark and cluttered set yet often moving with frantic energy. Complex formal dances are fractured by brief scrappy fights, by a furtively grabbed embrace, by a child playing or by an old man shambling about his own half-crazy business. A single phrase alternates between deft classical steps and skewed, slumped, expressionistic body language. The effect is of torn remnants of civilised behaviour fighting for survival in a hell of fear and disorientation.”