Elite Syncopations had its premiered just seven months after Manon – and is MacMillan at his most playful. He had been planning a ragtime ballet even before George Roy Hill’s use of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as the title-track for his film The Sting revived popular interest in Joplin’s music. Two other ballets of the period were also choreographed to Joplin rags. These were Barry Moreland’s Prodigal Son for London Festival Ballet and Alfonso Catá’s and Kent Stowell’s Ragtime for Frankfurt Ballet.
The curtain opens as Elite Syncopation’s cast dance wildly on a virtually bare stage. On a rostrum at the back is a band of twelve players led by a pianist (at the premiere Philip Gammon, with members of the Covent Garden orchestra). The setting might be a competition in a louche dancehall in the Mississipi Delta at the turn of the last century, where the ballet’s characters flirt, dance and vie with each other for the limelight. There is no real plot; just a succession of rags, cakewalks and slow drags which demand virtuosity and comic flair.
The designer was Ian Spurling, with whom MacMillan has already collaborated on Seven Deadly Sins. The costumes are dazzlingly garish, a riot of gaudy and inventive colour. For the dancers there are sassy lycra unitards, variously patterned with arrows, stars and stripes, buttons and bows. The band’s costumes are toned-down versions of the 1900 fashions so extravagantly exaggerated on the dancers’ bodies. In both scenery and costume Spurling’s designs underscored the informal - and almost improvisatory - quality of the ballet and contributed greatly to its enduring success.
Like Danses Concertantes, MacMillan’s first work for the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, Elite Syncopations is a ‘dance concert’ whose individual sections are watched by other dancers not performing at the time. In the triple bill at which it was premiered, Elite Syncopations contrasted with the seriousness of Frederick Ashton’s Scénes de ballet and MacMillan’s own Song of the Earth.
Elite Syncopations was a hit with audiences in London, as it would be later in Canada and the United States. For Covent Garden regulars it was a chance to see favourite dancers letting their hair down: in the first night cast, Monica Mason’s witty and showgirlish Calliope Rag; the Alaskan Rag for the tall elegant Vergie Derman and the diminutive Wayne Sleep; for Michael Coleman a spectacular solo, shot through with rhythmic wit; and the engaging Bethena rag-waltz for Merle Park and Donald MacLeary.
According to Noel Goodwin, writing for Dance and Dancers, MacMillan had choreographed several more rags than he eventually used in the ballet. Even on a second viewing Goodwin wrote, Elite Syncopations was ‘cheerfully diverting’. He continued: “Much of my enjoyment came from watching some of the Royal Ballet’s best and most distinctive principals displaying new facets of their artistry in the choreography MacMillan devised for them.”
When in 1976 the Royal Ballet brought Elite Syncopations to the United States, Anna Kisselgoff, The New York Times’ dance critic, was unstinting. “The ballet is fun”, she enthused. “Here is Mr MacMillan in full verve. That’s entertainment.”