Valley of Shadows was Kenneth MacMillan’s portrayal of the fate of an Italian Jewish family under fascism, Nazi occupation and the horrors of the death camps. Inspired by Georgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and the film of the same name by Vittorio de Sica, it was controversial for its choice of subject. While the family’s fate was only alluded to in the film, MacMillan’s scenario makes it explicit. After its premiere the appropriateness - even the possibility - of depicting the events of the Holocaust in balletic terms was hotly debated.
The action moves back and forth in time between the luxuriant and secluded garden of the Finzi-Contini family and the concentration camp where many of them will die. Exiled from the local tennis club from which they are barred by Mussolini’s race laws, a group of young people instead play in the garden. While at first they show little awareness of what is happening to their elders, a sense of menace builds strongly. The romantic and sexual entanglements of the garden are intercut with scenes at the camp to which the ballet’s characters are brought successively to confront their destiny.
In what many who saw it described as a shattering performance, Alessandra Ferri danced the role of the young and flirtatious Micol around whom the story revolves. In her seclusion and self-centeredness she is careless of what is happening to all around her. The ballet is a study in her increasing isolation and she is the final character to meet her fate. As Mary Clarke of Dancing Times recorded, “The moment of real terror which seizes Ferri at the end of the third garden scene when the men have gone and the guards claim her is shattering. More than any of the others, she conveys, through the choreography MacMillan has set for her, the hell she has been through before her bruised and battered little body is thrown into the camp.”
In a choice of music that recalled the three-act Anastasia, MacMillan used Tchaikovsky’s melancholic sweetness to depict the carefree world of the garden with, for the death camps, Martinu’s darker and dislocating sound world.
After the first performance of Valley of Shadows, as Robert Penman of Dancing Times recorded, there was as there was a moment’s silence in the Royal Opera House followed by vigorous and prolonged applause. One member of the cast, Derek Deane, enthused in a Guardian interview about “the power you find in MacMillan’s steps”. From the newspaper critics Valley of Shadows drew reactions perhaps more dividedly partisan on the issue of its merits than any of MacMillan’s works since Anastasia. On one note, John Percival of The Times spoke for all. “Alessandra Ferri is exactly right for the young heroine. Not only is her supple pliant body ideal for the ingenious contrived adagios that are MacMillan’s speciality, but she has enough flair and commitment to convey emotion with her face even in the most back-breaking moments.”