In April 1991 Kenneth MacMillan was interviewed by Clement Crisp of The Financial Times. “Working in an Opera House with a large company”, MacMillan told Crisp, “I have to produce big works that will keep the company dancing. But there are moments when I feel I need to make a small-scale piece, which is difficult within the context of the Opera House.” Although I'd thought about making a ballet from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, I wasn't aware, when I made the original pas de deux for Darcey Bussell and Irek Mukhamedov, of what I had created. When I saw it, I realised that this was the farewell between Masha and Vershinin from Three Sisters, and I had to go on and make Winter Dreams.”
“Although the characters in the ballet are named after those in the play”, MacMillan explained in a programme note, “I have not attempted a balletic reworking of the entire story. Sometimes the choreography reflects the inner lives of the characters, at other times the narrative. I have tried to capture the atmosphere and melancholy of Chekhov’s masterpiece.”
Both play and ballet are set in a small Russian provincial town where the three sisters of Chekhov’s title find themselves isolated. As children they lived in Moscow; in adulthood they are exiled from the capital and its cultural refinements. If only they could return to Moscow, they imagine, they would find love and contentment. As it is, their lives are ones of quiet desperation. Masha (Darcey Bussell), the middle sister, is trapped in a marriage to Kulygin (Anthony Dowell), a local teacher. Her two sisters Olga (Nicola Tranah) and Irina (Vivian Durante) are trapped in the household of their brother and his socially ambitious wife. A group of army officers stationed nearby intrude on this suffocating world. Masha falls in love with Lt Colonel Vershinin (Irek Mukhamedov), their commander. When it is time for them to move on, they leave behind broken hearts and an even more overwhelming sense of hopelessmess.
Choreographically the ballet is a suite of separate numbers for the various characters, mainly in solos, duets or trios. When not dancing, the characters sit at dinner around a big table dimly glimpsed behind a gauze curtain backstage, with a pianist at one end and a group of guitarists at the other. The musicians are all in costume and playing, as it were, for the guests.
The Farewell pas de deux had been created to Tchaikovsky’s Romance in F major op. 51, to which had been added an arrangement by Philip Gammon of the song Does the day reign? For the complete ballet, Gammon selected a further group of piano pieces by Tchaikovsky. For contrasting colour, arrangements of Russian traditional music were interpolated, selected and arranged by Thomas Hartman, and played by a guitar ensemble.
“The dramatic and choreographic pattern is dense”, wrote Mary Clarke of Dancing Times. “The most beautiful writing is in the two pas de deux for Bussell and Mukhamedov but Winter Dreams is no “vehicle” ballet. These lovers may be at its heart but the whole company contribute to place them in context. The first night cheering was warm, not only for the dancers but, and especially, for MacMillan. It was wonderful to see him taking curtains with Bussell, with Mukhamedov and with Dowell – to whom he has given such a powerful role.”