Carousel

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Kenneth MacMillan died on 29 October 1992, just six weeks before the opening night of the National Theatre’s revival of Carousel. This was his first foray into a West End musical since the ill-fated Paul Slickey in 1959. Both the production and its choreography were a triumph, sweeping the decks at the following year’s Olivier Awards and later at the Tonys in New York - in part, because of Carousel, MacMillan came to be recognised well beyond the world of dance as an outstanding man of the theatre and his passing widely mourned. He had set most of the choreography; his assistant Jane Elliott along with two members of the cast, Simon Rice and Michael Keegan Dolan, completed what remained to be done.

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For the director Nicholas Hytner, Carousel, was “one of the great theatrical works, all about sex and violence and the lure of rough trade”. Scarcely surprising then that he had turned to MacMillan to create the dances for the production. In a Guardian interview Hytner had already praised him as “the most dangerously erotic choreographer of our age.”

Although the choreography (there were five danced scenes) drew on the schematics of Agnes de Mille’s 1945 original, the idiom is distinctly MacMillan’s. Carousel’s lead role, the fairground barker Billy Bigelow, a petty crook, is a classic MacMillan antihero. A quiet, reserved New England girl becomes physically obsessed with him. Neither can express their affection properly; he beats her, then attempts murder which goes wrong so he kills himself. He returns to earth in spirit form to find his daughter about to fall in love with a character just like him.

Unusually, the production begins not with a carousel centre stage, but in a nineteenth century New England mill, the heroine (Louise, Billy’s daughter) working absentmindly at her loom. A clock ticks the minutes away to six o’clock – when the workers, with upflung arms and soaring jetés swirl through the factory gates and away to a fairground, where roustabouts are building a carousel. In the seven opening minutes MacMillan’s choreography smoothed the complex transition from factory to fairground and its complex entries and exits with, according to the production’s designer Robert Crowley, “the precision of a NATO manoeuvre”. Theatrically the effect was electrifying; for Frank Rich, The New York Times’ then theatre critic, this was a “bittersweet cinematic panorama of oppression and release”.

In London and in New York, newspaper reviews of the production were mostly by theatre critics. Michael Billington of The Guardian (by then an enthusiastic MacMillan advocate) applauded the exhilaration of the choreography “with June is Bustin’ Out All Over turning into an ecstatic New England pastoral and Blow High, Blow Low into a virile expression of oilskinned masculine frustration”.

In the National Theatre production in London (the first Carousel on the West End stage since 1950), many of MacMillan’s dancers were ballet-trained. Bonnie Moore (Louise) came from the Royal Ballet and, previously, American Ballet Theater, while Stanislav Tchassov (The Carnival Boy) had danced with the Bolshoi. Simon Rice had come from the Royal Ballet and during rehearsal MacMillan had recognised the young Michael Keegan Dolan as a precocious talent in the making (a few days before his death, he said to Keegan Dolan “when are you going to stop pretending that you’re not as talented as you are?”)

At the 1993 Oliviers, Carousel collected many of the principal awards; MacMillan was posthumously honoured with a special lifetime achievement award, accepted by his widow Lady MacMillan. At the same ceremony, The Judas Tree was judged the best new dance production. In New York Carousel went on to win five Tony theatre awards in 1984 with Kenneth MacMillan being named best choreographer.

It was only when the production moved to Broadway (where it was staged by the Lincoln Center Theater Company) in 1994 that the choreography was given a detailed newspaper review by a dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times. No other choreographer, she suggested, would have had MacMillan’s ready instinct for the dark side of 1940s sentimentality. She continued; “Deservedly, the choreographer's fantasy ballet in Act II brings down the house. Like a Kabuki dance that sums up a play at the end, MacMillan's version distils the sexuality.... his touch is evident from the moment the tomboy Louise joins a group of boys in a stylized baseball game; a series of lifts and slides, as well as stolen kisses, point toward something more than adolescent horseplay. A typical MacMillan rape scene is in the offing. But Louise is saved by the entrance of a respectable family, trotting across the stage. Louise's true sexual awakening comes as she is being seduced by the fantasy counterpart of her father -- the Fairground Boy. MacMillan's forte was always the pas de deux, and the erotic and the tender mix as easily here as in his duets in ballets like Manon and Mayerling.

Kisselgoff concluded: “He did not rely on body language, de Mille-style, but on the formal value of ballet steps. The Fairground Boy woos Louise with double air-turns. MacMillan sough to make classical technique expressive in itself. In Carousel, he succeeded again”.

When four months after his death, there was a memorial service for Kenneth MacMillan, Richard Roger’s Carousel Waltz echoed through Westminster Abbey as the entrance procession made its way to the choir. Among those paying tribute was Carousel’s director Nicholas Hytner, who recalled how their collaboration came about. “Desperate to make an impression, I talked on and on, until finally I blurted out, ‘The point about this musical is that it’s about sex and violence.’ Kenneth slowly raised an eyebrow and drawled, ‘Well, that’s what I do’”.

With Carousel, Kenneth MacMillan’s work became more widely known to audiences, who would never have gone to Covent Garden to see a ballet. Its opening night in the Lyttleton Theatre was an intensely emotional occasion with MacMillan’s family and many of his closest friends in the audience. MacMillan left them a final coup de theatre; as Frank Rich of The New York Times recorded, “in the Act II pas de deux, in which Billy's unhappy teen-age daughter searches for her dead father's love by taking up with a fairground boy (Stanislav Tchassov), MacMillan joins the hero in seeming to speak to a spellbound audience from beyond the grave.”