Kenneth MacMillan was fascinated by the Orpheus myth and it is one to which he repeatedly returned in his choreography. In June 1982 The Royal Ballet staged a triple bill to celebrate the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s birth. The programme comprised Fokine’s The Firebird, Nijinska’s Les Noces and a premiere, Kenneth MacMillan’s Orpheus. Stravinsky’s score was originally commissioned for George Balanchine and Ballet Society in 1948; MacMillan’s interpretation was his eighth – and final - Stravinsky ballet.
MacMillan follows the main thread of the Greek myth, albeit with interpolations of his own. The ballet opens with the dead Eurydice being lowered from high above the stage into her tomb; only then does the music begin. As Orpheus mourns her and rages at her untimely death, the Angel of Light and the Dark Angel contend for his soul. The Dark Angel leads Orpheus across the River Styx where he is led blindfolded to Eurydice. Then follows their rapturous reunion; but when they finally lay eyes on each other, Eurydice is swiftly borne away and Orpheus is torn to pieces by The Furies. The Dark Angel claims Orpheus’s body, but the Angel of Light escapes with his lyre, which in the final scene he loses to Apollo. In an apotheosis, the two lovers are reunited in death as Apollo plucks the strings of Orpheus’s lyre.
“MacMillan uses the particular qualities of his principals to the greatest advantage”, wrote Stephanie Jordan for Dancing Times. “Jennifer Penny is introverted and glacial, as she is rocked by a river of bodies over the Styx and in her nervous, light little solo, bold and consuming as she wraps herself about Schaufuss in the epicentral pas de deux. Schaufuss, making his Royal Ballet debut, is impassioned yet easy and articulate in execution of an array of virtuoso bounds and turns and jerky wiggle walks that depict the emotion and turmoil of Orpheus, generous and elastic as he plucks his lyre in the song of consolation in Hades.”
Earlier in the year MacMillan had choreographed Verdi Variations for Peter Schaufuss and Elisabetta Terabust. It was this experience that led MacMillan to request that Schaufuss be a guest at Covent Garden for Orpheus. There was considerable enthusiasm for his ‘incredible virtuosity’ (The Observer), while for Clement Crisp in The Financial Times, MacMillan’s use of Schaufuss was never gratuitous; “the dance feeds from his bravura but also enhances it.”
Nicholas Georgiadis’s dramatic set featured golden ladders leading to a black underworld inhabited by insect like creatures which might have come from outer space. The skeleton echoing body-tights of the masked angels of dark and light reminded one reviewer of the predatory Bird Woman in House of Birds. Georgiadis’s designs for Orpheus subsequently won him the Evening Standard award for Outstanding Contribution to Dance.