Different Drummer

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Jann Parry's biography of Kenneth MacMillan, Different Drummer, published in 2009, reveals a complex artist who fiercely guarded his own privacy, while his ballets communicated his darkest and most intimate thoughts.

The following excerpt from Parry’s book, which is published by Faber & Faber, describes the period during which MacMillan created his three-act ballet Mayerling.
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During the company’s summer break, he prepared his plans for Mayerling: ‘He would sit in the kitchen in an appalling cacophony of noise – Charlotte playing, the dogs barking and the television on and he’d pay no attention at all, lost in his own world.’

He had started work on the ballet before he resigned, though rehearsals had been disrupted by the other demands on his time. Dancers he wanted had not always been available. Anthony Dowell, his initial choice as Rudolf, had been injured during early rehearsals for Mayerling. After recovering, he had taken stock of his career and requested leave of absence in order to dance elsewhere. He joined American Ballet Theatre as principal guest artist during 1978–80, returning to dance with the Royal Ballet in between. He spent the rest of his career with the Royal Ballet (eventually as Artistic Director) but never danced the role of Rudolf. David Wall replaced him in the preparatory rehearsals in April 1977, so most of the ballet was created with Wall as the central character.

Gillian Freeman had provided a scenario very like a film treatment. She had researched Rudolf’s background thoroughly, preparing pen portraits for Kenneth of the historical figures who most affected the Crown Prince’s life. She had selected events likely to make dramatic sense, suggesting where they belonged in the ballet’s structure: where the pas de deux might come, how the private and public scenes would flow into each other. Somewhat to her surprise, for she was anticipating the many rewrites to which a film scenario is subjected, MacMillan accepted her outline without reservation. He wanted to set to work within a given framework, freeing himself to develop the characters’ expressive dance language. He worked out his own analysis of the unhappy Prince’s psyche, identifying in Rudolf elements of himself, taken to extremes. The ballet was to be a chronicle of destruction – the breakdown of a man who could not meet the expectations of those around him, and who was undermined by disease, drugs and the flaws of his own personality.

MacMillan was, in effect, the Crown Prince of the Royal Ballet, heir to the institution de Valois had built up. His preparation for the role of its Director had been a kind of exile, as he saw it, in Berlin. There he had felt himself isolated and misunderstood, out of his depth in the politics of the Deutsche Oper and Cold War Berlin. He had become profoundly depressed and alcoholic, his health further damaged by a stroke.

On his return to assume his Royal Ballet kingdom, he had been intrigued against, mistrusted by members of the Establishment who thought he was out to destroy everything de Valois and Ashton had stood for. He had no such intention, but neither of them had given him the unconditional loyalty or affection for which he had hoped. He couldn’t but be aware that he was his own worst enemy, unable to play the diplomatic games that might have made his life easier.

In the end, he had chosen to abdicate from the responsibilities he had once ambitiously wanted to inherit. There were plenty of parallels between him and the anti-hero of his ballet.

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Read the complete Different Drummer excerpt