Kiss to the Beat of Four

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In February 1983 the author and journalist Rachel Billington profiled Kenneth MacMillan when he was rehearsing Different Drummer.

It is quiet in the rehearsal room. Light comes across the roofs of Covent Garden. The corps de ballet loll on the floor against two walls. In one corner there is a grand piano with a pianist.

Along another wall various well-known dancers wait, one drinking Pepsi-Cola and reading a book. Along another, on folding chairs, sit the notator, the designer, the assistant to the choreographer, and choreographer. He summons the soloists to the centre and mimes their positions. The music begins and the dancers hurl themselves together. The choreographer returns to his seat. He walks with an unusual glide, the visible legacy of a dancer's training.

At 21, Kenneth MacMillan leapt across the cover of Ballet magazine. Soon after, he hung up his ballet shoes for good. "Everyone thought I was mad", he says, "but I couldn't wait to get off the stage." That was in the early 1950s but the reason he disliked being a dancer still gives the best clue to his subsequent work as a choreographer. "I was getting non-interpretive parts, just sheer technique. And that bored me silly."

Sir Kenneth MacMillan, knighted last year after 30 years with the Royal Ballet, is recognized as king of the dramatic ballet, the kind where the dancers are not used, in his words, like "typewriter keys" but as ''human beings". Pure technique bored MacMillan as a dancer (as well as terrifying him!) and when he became a choreographer he determined to take ballet into new areas. "I felt I was in the theatre, and, in general ballet didn't reflect all theatre can do.”

“Whatever I have done, I have always felt a rebel.”

This attitude has made MacMillan enemies among purists who believe it is the very limitations of classical ballet which define its strength. For them, drama weakens its essential nature. Such critics look to Balanchine as the true master of modern classical ballet. Despite a long and successful association with such an establishment as the Royal Ballet, MacMillan still seems beleaguered. He says: "Whatever I have done, I have always felt a rebel."

He could have added "outsider" too. Kenneth MacMillan' was born in Dunfermline, Fife in 1929. When he was five his father, who had been gassed in the First World War, lost his money in a chicken farm and they moved to Great Yarmouth to live with his grandparents. The family was "very working class" - his father had been a miner before the war. MacMillan learned about ballet at the local library, where he spent much of his time. Nijinsky and Fred Astaire became heroes. He listened to classical music on the wireless. (Surprisingly, he has never learned to read music, preferring to "respond to the emotions of the music rather than the mathematics of it"). Then came the war and evacuation for his grammar school and digs in Nottinghamshire. However, as he points out wryly, they returned home for the holidays. "Violence and war is a whole part of my childhood." On the first day of his first holiday his much- loved mother died. This left him with an embittered father and two much- loved older sisters, one of whom was deaf. By the end of the war, ballet had become a secret obsession. (Even now he describes himself as very secretive). It was then he wrote under his father's name asking Ninette de Valois to accept him at Sadler's Wells school.

“ A very soft clap is his loudest expression of power.”

"Obsession" and "emotion" arc two words that figure largely in Kenneth MacMillan's vocabulary. They sound odd coming from a man whose immediately obvious qualities are gentleness and quiet. In the rehearsal room he uses no demonstration of physical energy to control and command his sometimes large and ebullient forces - 18 marching boys during one session. A very soft clap is his loudest expression of power. The art of gentle persuasion is very important when the body is being pushed to its physical limits. Commands to established star Wayne Eagling and new star Alessandra Ferri such as "Kiss to the beat of four” are obeyed as if for a stage performance. But immediately afterwards, the scene diffuses into general giggles, in which MacMillan himself joins.

Although the real MacMillan only emerges in the rehearsal rooms, we meet to talk in his house in Wandsworth. It is a large family home inhabited by his beautiful wife Deborah, who paints, their daughter Charlotte, aged 10, who "flirts with ballet", various other relations and two noisy dogs. The household presents an everyday kind of scene. Yet the only book in the sitting room is entitled Ritual and Seduction . It lies on a gigantic opium bed which dominates a chorus of dramatic Eastern decorations. "Bought in the King's Road", comments MacMillan. He is a tall man for an ex-dancer. Dame Ninette de Valois refers to him in her memoirs: "Now promoted to the second company from the school is a thin tall boy of great talent, by name Kenneth MacMillan." That was in 1946. Dame Ninette was always MacMillan’s patron. He describes those early years as "the first time I was with people whom I could talk to about the things I really felt". He was 15, an orphan living in digs. It was she who encouraged him to try choreographing in the Sadler's Wells Choreographic Workshop. Dramatic works like The Invitation and pure dance works like Symphony made him the natural successor to Sir Frederick Ashton. Yet MacMillan, although an admirer, had no intention of following in the great man's footsteps. His aims were different, turning away from the fairyland of Sleeping Beauty and trying to express his own view of people and the world. He disliked the elitism of ballet, which he felt was removed from real life. He cites Look back in Anger  in 1956 as an important inspiration. Naturally enough these views made him controversial and in 1966, despite such successes as Romeo and Juliet, he left the Royal Ballet to be director of the Berlin Ballet. He needed to be in a world which was not so constrained by the tradition of classical ballet.

“I find the tragic more interesting than the comic.”

These three German years were another period of lonely isolation for MacMillan - even though he took with him several English dancers, including his own discovery, Lynn Seymour. He has referred to a breakdown he suffered at this time after the death of his sister in a car crash. Indeed his image as the tormented loner lasts until his marriage in 1974. Nevertheless he continued to create ballets, including a one-act version of Anastasia. He returned to the Royal Ballet as director in 1970 for a very long seven years. Since then he has regularly produced ballets of which obsession, self-destruction and sheer horror have been major themes. "I find the tragic more interesting than the comic."

The new ballet which I have been watching in rehearsal and which will be premiered tomorrow is no exception. It is called Different Drummer and based on Buchner's Woyzeck. MacMillan arrived at the subject through his production of Strindberg's play Dance of Death  in Manchester last year, which stimulated his interest in expressionism. The play is made up of fragments which can be variously ordered but MacMillan has moulded them into a continuous flow. It was the imagery of the play that attracted him and the ballet has the compulsive, nightmare feeling of a painting brought to life. The crazed Woyzeck is danced by Wayne Eagling with an exhibition of non-stop movement which leaves him gasping. "It's the running", he explains. The drum major is danced by Stephen Jefferies and Woyzeck's beautiful but disloyal love by Alessandra Ferri. Ritual and Seduction are here made into dance. At one point Ferri becomes Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Christ. The music, Verklärte Nacht by Schoenberg, dictates the almost romantic feel of the piece, preceded by Webern’s Passacaglia. MacMillan likes the "shock" that comes with transition from one piece of music to another. The visual inspiration comes from painters such as Munch, George Grosz and pictures of the First World War. His father is not forgotten. "Sculptural" is a word MacMillan uses to describe his ballet.

“A lot of ballet critics have become stuck in an arrested emotional development of the time when they first saw Swan Lake. It's funny how I seem to threaten the way they feel about ballet. I'm not trying to pull it down. I'm just going in another direction.”

MacMillan feels ballet should be open to the cross-currents of other art forms and not fossilized in a mould set some 30 years ago. He himself had admired and assimilated Balanchine's work in the 1950s - something he feels some critics are only just doing now. "A lot of ballet critics have become stuck in an arrested emotional development of the time when they first saw Swan Lake. It's funny how I seem to threaten the way they feel about ballet. I'm not trying to pull it down. I'm just going in another direction." He suggests the short history of British ballet, a mere 50 years or so, as a possible explanation of this sensitivity. At the moment the most classical of all sequences, the fourth act of Petipa's La Bayadère is playing in the same bill as MacMillan's horrific picture of' holocaust, Valley of Shadows. "Take someone off the street", says MacMillan, "and which ballet would they find most peculiar?" To those who criticize his "step backwards" into the past with such lavish pieces as Manon, he states firmly. 'What's important is that's it's about the human condition".

The dancers for whom he principally creates have a strength of character which reflects his thoughts. "That looks dangerous", he says calmly as Alessandra Ferri drops head downwards from a great height. Her response is to do it again. In the' rehearsal room he allows them to join in with ideas, describing it as a "sort of improvisation". Anything else would be like “painting by numbers". In this way, and indeed in his use of time within the structure of his ballets, he has more in common with a film director than the traditional choreographer who strings steps together. It is no coincidence that many of his ballets have been successfully filmed, including an award-winning version of Mayerling  by London Weekend Television and a new version of Brecht-Weill's The Seven Deadly Sins by Granada to be shown this Easter. Granada also made A Lot of Happiness , which showed him choreographing a new ballet. He took nearly as much interest in the position of the camera as the dancers. After ballet, theatre, and after theatre, films?

However after Different Drummer, he is to direct a Tennessee Williams play, Kingdom of the Earth at the Hampstead Theatre Club. It fits once more into the emotional, obsessive MacMillan category. But Sir Kenneth is not so easy to label. Just before I leave Wandsworth he casually drops the information that the 1986 ballet For Covent Garden will be The Prince of the Pagodas with Benjamin Britten's music. In case I hadn't got the point, he adds genially, "A fairy-tale. With tutus...”

"Will it?" gasps his wife. "I didn't know that."

 “It’s a classical ballet", responds MacMillan firmly and adds in explanation, “After so many dramatic ballets, I have to go back to my roots again to revise what I think about classical dancing."

It is another development in the career of a man who in his efforts to express emotion has stretched the classical vocabulary about as far as it will go.

"Some mothers may even be able to bring their children to it",
says Sir Kenneth, not exactly threateningly.

www.rachelbillington.com