Requiem was MacMillan’s tribute to his friend John Cranko, who had died unexpectedly three years earlier. They had known each other since 1946, when both were students at the Sadler’s Wells Ballet School and soon to become members of the touring company. South African-born Cranko knew from early on that he was to become a choreographer; MacMillan took longer to discover his vocation.
Cranko had gone on to become artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet from 1961 until his death in 1973. He gave MacMillan ready access to the Stuttgart company until their friendship soured in 1970. When MacMillan was ready to create a requiem ballet, the music he chose was vetoed by the Royal Opera House board of governors. Certain board members declared that setting a ballet to Fauré’s sacred music would offend religious sensibilities. MacMillan turned instead to Marcia Haydée, by then artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet, asking if she would welcome the Fauré Requiem as a memorial to Cranko. She accepted without hesitation, confident that the Stuttgart opera company would provide the singers the choral work required.
The ballet was a portrait of the Stuttgart ballet company as a community coming to terms with the loss of a much-loved leader. Haydée, still dancing as well as directing, was the central figure embodying their grief before consoling them. Although the choreography was created on specific dancers, who were Cranko’s favourites as well as MacMillan’s, the roles are generic: the performers are sometimes human mourners, sometimes angels or spirits. MacMillan based many of the choreographic images on William Blake’s symbolic drawings and paintings, though he did not show the dancers the illustrations he had in mind.
A huddled mass of mourners enter to the Introitus, hammering their fists in anger, their mouths open in silent howls of grief. They raise the Haydée figure aloft as if she were an offering; she rolls on a sea of hands, a soul on a journey to becoming a blessed spirit. She dances a pas de deux in the Offertorium and the Sanctuswith two different men, who have their own anguished solos. Her solo to the Pie Jesu, a prayer for eternal peace, is a marvel of simplicity. She touches the ground – the Earth – as though exploring the light falling upon it. She returns at the end of the Agnus Dei to comfort a grieving young woman, suspended above her by a group of men like an angel of mercy bestowing a blessing.
In the final section, In Paradisum, the company gathers around a pool of light as if witnessing the departure of a soul to heaven. Women are flown in from the wings, lifted by men with upstretched arms. At the end, all depart in a procession, backs to the audience, leaving the stage bathed in white light.
Yolanda Sonnabend’s set consists of tall fibreglass panels lit to appear translucent, with a white backcloth and floor. Costumes are lycra body-tights, the torsos painted with striations resembling veins and muscles. Sonnabend based them on Vesalius’s anatomical studies and Blake’s illustrations of bodies in extremis. One of the male soloists wears only a loin-cloth, making him resemble a biblical figure. The central woman is distinguished from the others by a semi-transparent chiffon shift. MacMillan told Sonnabend that he was aiming for a similar spareness to the designs for The Song of the Earth, the work Requiem most closely resembles.
Requiem was well-received in Stuttgart and in Washington, D.C, when the Stuttgart Ballet took it on tour to the United States six months later. Clive Barnes in The New York Times and John Percival in The Times, both known to be harsh critics of MacMillan’s work on occasion, praised the ballet and reproached the Royal Ballet for missing an important work by its own choreographer. MacMillan had given the Stuttgart Ballet exclusive rights to Requiem for six years. The Royal Ballet took it into the repertoire in 1983, where it joined Voluntaries, Glen Tetley’s 1973 tribute to John Cranko.