Lucia Chase, the director of American Ballet Theatre, visited Europe in August 1956 in pursuit of new work to broaden her company’s repertory. The critic Peter Williams introduced her to Kenneth MacMillan and shortly afterwards Chase commissioned him to make a ballet for ABT, with Nora Kaye and John Kriza as the two leads.
MacMillan proposed several librettos; Chase was attracted most to a story, vaguely inspired by Truman Capote, of a blind girl who tries to keep her blindness a secret from a young man and eventually renders him blind also, by accident. When they first meet and fall in love, the air is filled with birds which represent her soaring emotions. She accepts his invitation to a ball, during which he realises she is blind. Immediately the birds return. This time they are menacing and angry. The girl strikes at them. In doing so, she accidentally blinds the young man.
MacMillan planned to have a specially written score by the French composer Henri Dutilleux, who had written the score for Roland Petit’s Le Loup (MacMillan later choreographed Métaboles (1978) to music by Dutilleux). But because time was short, a commissioned score was abandoned in favour of Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge.
Designs were by Nicholas Georgiadis; he had hurriedly to rethink them because of Chase’s dislike of mauve, the dominant colour in the ballroom scene. John Martin of The New York Times thought both decor and costumes “sumptuous and handsome” and “also eminently Parisian in quality.” (The set was built and painted in Paris).
The final go-ahead only came in December. Because of the Suez crisis ABT had had to abandon a tour of the Middle East and substitute a European tour. By 31 December 1956 MacMillan had sketched out a ballet for the two principals and a corps of 16. On January 16 1957 the premiere took place in Lisbon, where local press reaction was enthusiastic, even if the critics of both the Diario de Noticias and O Seculo considered the story improbable.
“Tragic events at a macabre-romantic ball – we are in fairly familiar balletic territory here”, wrote David Vaughan for The Guardian when the ballet had its New York premiere on 10 February. “However”, he continued, "Winter’s Eve is saved from cliché by the sharply individual flavour of MacMillan’s idiom and his compassionate, if detached, attitude to his characters.”
For The New York Times critic John Martin, Winter’s Eve “had everything the matter with it. The work as a whole is callow, cruel, capricious and chichi and yet, there remains the indubitable evidence of Mr MacMillan’s talent. Invention is at present his greatest asset and his greatest danger, for he can turn out an endless amount of original movement without developing any of it. As a result he abandons his principal character about the middle of the piece and leaves her largely to shift for herself thereafter.” Ninette de Valois, Martin suggested, would not have countenanced such a scenario.
However Walter Terry of the New York Herald Tribune was sufficiently enthused to devote two lengthy reviews to MacMillan’s ballet. Like Martin he agreed that the ballet had flaws; however he thought that MacMillan had extended ballet vocabulary into a freer form of expression and emotional revelation.